A punch to the stomach
by Dan Wetzel, Yahoo Sports
June 5, 2004
"Oh my God," he screamed. "Who is that horse, No. 4?"
No one knew out here, among these $2 exacta boxers who had lugged coolers and canopies from Allentown and Havertown to watch what seemed like the only horse in this race, their Philly guy Smarty, win the Belmont, win the Triple Crown, make history.
Instead it was that horse, No. 4, Birdstone, a 36-to-1 underdog who wouldn't stop running, wouldn't stop closing on a Smarty Jones that for once had no extra gear, no answer. Birdstone passed Smarty in the final furlong and didn't slow down till he had sprung a sport-rocking upset in the Belmont.
By then the backyard was in near-silence. There were tears on little girls' cheeks and expletives shouted into the air and big, strong guys with their heads buried in their calloused hands.
But most notably was his ability to connect with the public, to draw in new fans to a sport that needed them, to enrapture children and make grown men wear shirts that read "Go Smarty Go." Back out here, far from the blue-blooded grandstands, the Smarty phenomenon was in full spectacle.
Smarty was the people's horse. Smarty was the people's champion.
Which is why this one hit like a sucker punch to the stomach. They had come north by the tens of thousands, swelling the crowd here to a record 120,139 for a Smarty Party. And when their horse took the lead with a mile to go and slowly began spreading it they jumped and screamed and shouted toward the heavens.
Smarty in front down the stretch? The little chestnut sprinter having already left the menacing Rock Hard Ten and the dangerous Purge in his dust?
And then, deep in the home stretch, it collapsed. A joyous roar became the silence of disbelief.
"God," someone shouted as he crushed his foot down on an empty can. "I thought we had it."
Team Smarty wasn't so confident, a surprising twist for a group that had helped fuel the hype. Coming in, everything had gone perfectly, trainer John Servis had said. The workouts, the horse's mood ... Smarty even got in his customary race day nap.
But when the race started and Smarty had to deal with wave after wave of challenger, as if all eight contenders teamed up to take shots at the champ, Servis knew there was trouble. His horse never got comfortable, never got into an easy rhythm that would preserve energy for the end of this grueling mile-and-a-half race.
"He never settled," Servis said. "I wasn't feeling good down the backside. I was really concerned."
Smarty had the lead late but never the pop in his legs to gain an insurmountable gap that many had predicted. And when Birdstone, who had been pacing himself for a late move, broke, it was over. He may have been a monumental underdog, but this horse really could close.
"I saw him coming," jockey Stewart Elliott said. "My horse saw him coming. We just couldn't hold him off."
Out back some fans threw ice at the TV screen. Some slammed down beers in disgust. Others just stood in stunned silence. This was supposed to be a coronation, not a race. Smarty's odds got as low as 1 to 9 (he went off at 3 to 10) because the people kept betting as fans, not gamblers. At those odds there is little money to win, only to lose, yet when all the dollars are counted it is expected that more money was bet on Smarty than any other horse in history.
Some New Yorkers started heckling the Philadelphians for losing again; the way the city's sports franchises have done over and over since the 76ers won the NBA title in 1983, the longest drought of a major sports city. There wasn't much anyone could say.
Servis tried to put a good spin on it, claiming the Derby was Philly's championship. But that probably won't stick. The Derby is a great accomplishment, but the Triple Crown felt like a world championship. And this felt like Philly's day to win it, which is why the city came out en masse to witness it.
One furlong away it was right there. The Belmont. The Triple Crown.
The people's champion staring at nothing but daylight, nothing but history.
And then came that horse, No. 4.
Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated on Saturday, Jun 5, 2004 9:17 pm, EDT