John Servis was still glowing over Smarty Jones’ spectacular performance Saturday when someone told him the margin of victory was a Preakness Stakes record.
Servis raised his eyebrows, wiped his brow and smiled.
Seems as if there’s no end to the surprises Smarty Jones has for his proud trainer and the rest of the horse-racing world.
Smarty Jones wouldn’t have gone to the Belmont if he lost in the Preakness, but his 11 1/2 -length victory means he will have a chance to become the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
“As long as he tells us he’s ready, we’re on to the Belmont,” Servis declared.
After Smarty Jones rolled to victory in the Kentucky Derby, Servis decided he would go easy on his undefeated horse in preparing for the Preakness. Smarty Jones had already run five races in 2004, and Servis realized the chestnut colt desperately needed a break.
“The only change for me was in his training,” he said. “We did a whole lot less with him.”
When he first took the horse to a starting gate last July, Smarty Jones reared up, banged his head on an iron bar and knocked himself unconscious.
Servis has since become much more adept at handling the horse.
“I was concerned going into the race,” he said. “Someone asked me this morning if I was as confident as I was going into the Derby, and I said no, I was not. I think he’s a little vulnerable.”
Smarty Jones made it eight wins in eight career races with remarkable ease, taking control before the stretch and galloping to an overpowering victory.
“Smarty Jones is obviously a super horse,” said Imperialism owner Steve Taub, who watched his horse lose for the second time in two weeks. “I mean, he won this race by 11 1/2 lengths. He had his ears pinned back, and it looked like he was just having a ball out there. He’s just a spectacular racehorse.”
Good enough to make Servis’ job easy.
“Once again, everything I’m asking for, he’s stepped up to the plate,” he said. “I’m so impressed with his effort today, I really am. I knew he had to bring his best game. I knew this was the toughest race he was going to be in for a long time. And he brought it. He brought it big time.”
Rock Hard Ten a finicky stallion
Right from start, Rock Hard Ten was out of sorts. And pretty soon, just like every other new horse in the Preakness Stakes, he was out of the race.
Hoping to challenge Smarty Jones on a fast track, Rock Hard Ten instead proved to be more of a handful to jockey Gary Stevens. Kicking up his heels and twirling around, the rambunctious colt refused to enter the starting gate Saturday.
“He’s a big, black stallion and he wants to do it his way,” breeder and co-owner Madeleine Paulson said. “No one is going to push him in and tell him to go.”
Eventually, Stevens jumped off, and it took almost a half-dozen people to shove the horse into place, delaying the start for about five minutes and prompting the record crowd of 112,668 to shout even louder to get going.
Once the race began, Rock Hard Ten dropped back quickly and needed a strong closing kick for a second-place finish, 11 1/2 lengths behind Smarty Jones.
“I had another gear left,” Stevens said. “Unfortunately, when I had another gear, Smarty Jones had another four gears.”
Missing a little something
For the first time since 1985, neither Bob Baffert nor D. Wayne Lukas had a horse in the Preakness.
Lukas had missed only two Preakness races since 1985, and Baffert had a horse in the Preakness eight straight years before Saturday. Lukas has saddled five winners in the race, Baffert four.
“It just shows you how hard this game is that those fellows aren’t here,” said trainer Nick Zito.