ELMONT, N.Y. – The steam rose off my coffee, up toward the big oak trees and into the dark blue, pre-dawn Long Island sky.
About 100 media members and perhaps that many fans and curious track hands already had gathered around barn No. 5 here at Belmont Park, all waiting for an early-morning glimpse of the little chestnut turned big star, Smarty Jones.
Thursday, for the first time, Smarty was to take the Belmont track for a gallop, the kind of nothing workout that usually attracts no more than a yawn from anyone who happens to be around and awake.
But this is different. This is Smarty, this is the Belmont Stakes and this is two days before a chance at the first Triple Crown in 26 years.
And isn't this a perfect reminder why sports keeps finding ways to fascinate?
Sports is a wonderful diversion because of the drama, the definitive decisions and the charisma of the participants, even when they aren't human. It is why a humbly bred horse named after his owner's mother-in-law, unknown three months ago to all but the most devoted railbird, now is an undefeated international sensation.
Sometimes, in sports, anything really is possible.
Which is why there was both nothing, and everything, to see here.
The star himself was up early and sure, he's a horse, but Smarty seemed to know exactly why all these people were pointing cameras at him. It didn't seem like a coincidence when he pranced a bit or kept sticking out his tongue at them.
"People ask me all the time, of all the athletes who does he remind me of?" Smarty's trainer John Servis said. "He reminds me of Ali. He is very cocky and he lets you know. He will walk by and kick you, not hard, but just to let you know that 'you are mine if I want.'"
This is what you are left with in horse racing, a trainer comparing a horse to a former boxing champ, because no one really knows what Smarty is thinking, let alone if he is thinking at all. This is humans obsessed with animals, after all. It is not like horses around the world care who wins their race.
But the communication barrier didn't stop us, the inquisitive media, from looking for the slightest sign of something, anything, from the horse to relay to his breathless public.
We watched stable hands wash buckets. We watched stable mate Butterscotch graze on grass. When training rider Pete Van Trump led Smarty out of his stall, camera shutters clicked and necks craned. When co-owner Roy Chapman rolled up in his motorized wheelchair, everyone nodded as a man suffering from emphysema soaked in this crowning moment.
Eventually a small throng followed Smarty out to the giant Belmont oval, where Smarty's reins were tightly held so he wouldn't charge off. He made a slow gallop once around – as riveting as watching Shaq practice free throws – then went back to the barn as a soft sprinkle began.
It was nothing. It was everything. It was just after 6 a.m.
"He looked good enough for me," Chapman beamed. "I'm going to tell everyone I rode him myself today."
Some people laughed, appreciating a sick man making light of his own frailty. But then Chapman got to more quantifiable issues, like how he was tired and hungry, the hour of the day and all.
"I must be able to get a cup of coffee somewhere," he asked. "Churchill Downs had coffee and donuts."
Soon after, Van Trump gave Smarty a bath. People took pictures of that, too. Then the media interviewed every single member of Team Smarty about what they thought of the horse. They all shared a strong sense of confidence.
"If he gets beat," Servis said after the gallop, "it will be something out of the ordinary."
But there is no set formula in horse racing. No sure bets. No way to truly know what a horse is thinking, what a horse might do. And maybe that is why this race's popularity is surging.
In an information age when we often hear too much from our athletes, the star of this show truly is letting his performance do the talking. Smarty said nothing. Showed nothing. He isn't on the "Budweiser Hot Seat."
Thursday was about nothing and about everything; humans speculating, anticipating and ruminating about what a horse might do Saturday.
Out on the Belmont backstretch underneath the big oaks, all you could do was soak up the excitement, revel in the building drama and enjoy the breaking dawn, a hot cup of coffee in hand.
- Smarty Jones