Can it be only a little more than two weeks since the Triple Crown picture looked historically wide-open? What a difference two races can make.
Smarty Jones, after backing up his dramatic Kentucky Derby victory with a dominating performance in Saturday's Preakness Stakes, now is the heaviest of favorites to end the 25-year Triple Crown drought with a victory in the final leg of the series, the Belmont Stakes.
If the undefeated Pennsylvania-bred colt can win that 1 1/2-mile race at Belmont Park on June 5, he will add another $5 million bonus and become Thoroughbred racing's all-time leading money-earner.
The 11 1/2-length Preakness victory was so impressive that racing figures who should know better are talking of Smarty Jones as a reincarnation of Secretariat.
"He's just an amazing horse," said trainer Nick Zito, who will send Royal Assault against Smarty Jones in the Belmont. "It's not going to be easy trying to beat him."
Gary Stevens said he thought he had a chance to beat Smarty Jones when he urged Rock Hard Ten into contention at the top of the stretch at Pimlico. "My horse hit another gear," Stevens said. "But then Smarty Jones hit four other gears. I was no match for him today. He's very, very special. We may have seen history in the making."
Still, the Belmont is not a slam-dunk. It's the third stressful race for a young horse in five weeks' time. It's at a new track and a grueling distance. Last year, Funny Cide was the 29th horse to come into the Belmont with a chance for Triple Crown glory, only to fade in the stretch run.
Ditto War Emblem in 2002, Charismatic in 1999, Real Quiet in 1998, Silver Charm in 1997, Sunday Silence in 1989, Alysheba in 1987, Pleasant Colony in 1981 and Spectacular Bid in 1979.
In fact, the Triple Crown has been unclaimed since Affirmed beat Alydar in three dramatic races 1978. And no horse has come this far down the Triple Crown trail undefeated since Seattle Slew, who in 1977 became the first Triple Crown winner without a blemish on the scoresheet.
Smarty Jones's trainer, John Servis, knows these things and also knows the third step in the series is the toughest.
"This is the first time I've been on this road," Servis said Sunday morning after making sure Smarty Jones was okay. "I realize now why there has only been a handful of horses to win the Triple Crown. It's a very grueling road and we've been on it since January.
"But I've got a good horse, and he's doing real well," Servis continued. "I was real happy with him this morning. He seemed to come out of the race real well. As long as he continues to do how he is, we're going to go into the Belmont with a loaded gun."
Both Rock Hard Ten and Eddington, who finished third Saturday, also are moving on to the Belmont.
In other racing at Pimlico on Preakness week:
-- Southern Image rated outside Midway Road early in Friday's $500,000 Pimlico Special, took the lead as the duo entered the stretch and won by a comfortable 1 1/4 lengths. Bowman's Band was third. Funny Cide was a late scratch. Southern Image, a 4-year-old son of Halo's Image, picked up his third graded stakes victory. "That was quite a stretch duel," said winning rider Victor Espinoza. "I didn't know when we would go by, but I had confidence we would." Trainer Michael Machowski said he is happy he has been able to get Southern Image to relax during his races. "I don't think we've hit the bottom with him," he added. The 1 3/16 mile took 1:55.89.
-- Yearly Report gave trainer Bob Baffert one stakes victory on Preakness weekend, taking charge in deep stretch to win the $200,000 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 1 1/2 lengths over Pawyne Princess. Rare Gift was third. Yearly Report, with Jerry Bailey riding, got the 1 1/8 mile in 1:52.65. She is a Golden Eagle Farm homebred by General Meeting.
-- Gators N Bears stalked the pace in Saturday's $200,000 Maryland Breeders' Cup Handicap, got to the front with a furlong to run and won by 1 1/4 lengths over Highway Prospector. Sassy Hound was third. Gators N Bears, a 4-year-old, New Jersey-bred colt by Stormy Atlantic, ran 6 furlongs in 1:10.84.
-- Mr O'Brien upset Saturday's $200,000 Argent Dixie Stakes, rallying from near to rear to win by 2 lengths over Millennium Dragon. Warleigh was third. Mr O'Brien, an Irish-bred son of Mukaddamah, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:46.34. The favorite, Herculated, never fired and finished 10th of 11.
-- Royal Assault came from dead last under Patient Pat Day to win Saturday's $100,000 Sir Barton Stakes for 3-year-olds not quite up to the rigors of the Preakness. Royal Assault, a son of Kris S., came four-wide into the turn for room and won off by 1 3/4 lengths. Dashboard Drummer was second and Humorously finished third. Royal Assault ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:45.63.
-- Seattle Fitz put away The Lady's Groom at the top of the stretch in Saturday's $100,000 William Donald Schaefer Handicap, then drew off to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Roaring Fever was third under the wire. Seattle Fitz, a 5-year-old, Argentine-bred son of Fitzcarraldo, ran the 9 furlongs in 1:49.43 with Richard Migliore up.
-- Artie Schiller survived some traffic troubles to win Saturday's $100,000 Woodlawn Stakes for 3-year-olds by 3 3/4 lengths over Lipan. Timo was third. Artie Schiller, a son of El Prado, was steadied by jockey Richard Migliore with 3 furlongs to run, got to the inside and the had to swing back outside turning for home. Despite the detours, Artie Schiller ran the 1 1/16 mile on firm turf in 1:41.86.
-- Saturday's $100,000 Hirsch Jacobs Stakes provided an opportunity for 3-year-olds who prefer sprinting. Abbondanza started with only one horse beaten, then finished with all of them beaten. Bwana Charlie also closed well to finish second and Penn Pacific was third after leading the way. Abbondanza, Florida-bred son of Alphabet Soup, was home in 1:10.72.
-- Ocean Drive, with Jerry Bailey up, was always close in Saturday's $100,000 Gallorette Handicap, grabbed the lead at mid-stretch and held on to win by 1/2 length over Film Maker. With Patience was third. Ocean Drive, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of Belong to Me, ran 1 1/16 mile on firm turf in1:40.85.
-- Forest Music surged to the lead with a sixteenth of a mile to go in Friday's $100,000 Adena Stallions' Miss Preakness Stakes for 3-year-old fillies and then held on to win by a head over a late-running Stephan's Angel. Fall Fashion was third. Forest Music, a daughter of Unbridled's Song, ran 6 furlongs in 1:10.97 with Ramon Dominguez in the irons.
-- Go Go Baby Go got going early in Friday's $75,000 The Very One Stakes for fillies and mares and never quit. After opening up a quick lead, the 5-year-old, Oklahoma-bred daughter of Marked Tree held on to win by 1/2 length over Oh Say Vicki. Boozin' Susan was third. Go Go Baby Go went 5 furlongs on firm turf in course-record time of 56.02 seconds.
In other weekend racing:
Storm Flag Flying got back on the winning track in Saturday's $200,000 Shuvee Handicap. The 4-year-old daughter of Storm Cat-My Flag rallied under strong urging from jockey John Velazquez to catch Passing Shot in the last yards and win by a 1/2 length. Roar Emother was third, just a nose farther back. Storm Flag Flying, the 2002 Eclipse Award winner among juvenile fillies, ran 1 mile in 1:36.10. "I don't know why she is running a little bit 'spotty,'" said winning trainer Shug McGaughey. "She came around the turn and I thought it was hers to win. I'm glad to get this kind of a win. We can work from this." McGaughey said he will point Storm Flag Flying to the $300,000 Ogden Phipps on June 15 -- a race named for the father of the filly's owner, Ogden Mills Phipps.
Sunday, Rodeo Licious went quickly to the point in the $100,000 Bouwerie Stakes for New York-bred, 3-year-old fillies and won by 1 length. Mistda came from well back to take second and Capeside Lady, the pari-mutuel favorite, raced evenly to finish third. Rodeo Licious, with Mike Luzzi up, ran 7 furlongs in 1:23.07.
Anna Em rolled out of the gate first in Saturday's $100,000 Open Mind Stakes for 3-year-old fillies and kept extending her lead until she won by 6 1/2 lengths over Movant. Victoire Bataille was third. Anna Em, an Ohio-bred daughter of Our Emblem, finished the 5 furlongs on yielding turf in 57.22 seconds. Larry Melancon was at the controls for trainer Tom Amoss.
Miss Vegas was all out to hold off Ticker Tape and win Saturday's $100,000 Senorita Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by a head. Amorama was third, well back. Miss Vegas, an Irish-bred daughter of Efsio, got the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.25, with Alex Solis riding for trainer Bobby Frankel.
Double D Appeal was squeezed and steadied at the start of Sunday's $75,000 Nursery Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, then had to go wide on the turn and still won by 1 1/2 lengths over Bella Banissa. Kelly's Princess was third. Double D Appeal is a Florida-bred daughter of Successful Appeal. Victor Espinoza guided her over 5 furlongs on a fast track in 58.06 seconds.
Barbeau Ruckus, with Emile Ramsammy in the irons, had to wait for running room until deep stretch in Saturday's $125,000 (Canadian) New Providence Stakes. But once the 5-year-old son of Barbeau got room, he got up to win by a neck over Choreography. Norfolk Knight was third as the parade of longshots produced a $1,997.60 triactor. The race went in 1:10.19. "We thought he might have been a little short, running against the best sprinters at Woodbine," said Ramsammy. "But he ran his best today."
Sunday, Winter Garden blew past a tiring pair of speed merchants at the top of the stretch and went on to win the $150,000 (Canadian) Hendrie Stakes by 3 lengths. Another closer, Spanish Decree, was up for second and Handpainted got third. Winter Garden, a 4-year-old daughter of Roy, finished in 1:16.76.
Take Me Up came from way back to win Saturday's $60,000 John Wayne Stakes by a nose over pace-setting Country Warrior. Cmego was a neck farther in third. Take Me Up, a 6-year-old Take Me Out gelding, finished the 6 furlongs in 1:10.37 with Glenn Corbett up for regular rider Luis Quinonez, who has shifted his base to Louisiana. "If you run him too close, he won't have that big kick," said winning trainer Paul Pearson. "Corbett rode him perfect. I take my hat off to Corbett."
Bronze Abe won Saturday's $75,000 Sweet & Sassy Handicap for fillies and mares by 4 1/2 lengths over Umpateedle. Rebecca's Charm was third. Bronze Abe showed the way through a quarter mile in 21.75 seconds and a half in 44.55 then held on to finish in 1:10.53. The 5-year-old daughter of Two Punch now has won three stakes this year and has 10 wins from 26 career starts.
Cat Genius led from gate to wire in Saturday's $75,000 Waterford Park Handicap, drawing off to win by 4 3/4 lengths. Private Horde was second and Secret Romeo was third. Cat Genius, a 4-year-old Western Cat colt, finished the 6 furlongs on a "good" track in 1:09.85.
The Phoenix oval wound up its season with the traditional finale, the 15-furlong Hasta La Vista Handicap. Fade to Blue helped the track fade to black by drawing off in the final furlong to win by 2 lengths over Golden Approval. Paladin Power was third. Fade to Blue is an 8-year-old, California-bred gelding by Prized. He needed 3:11.97 over firm turf.