Since Affirmed last won the Triple Crown in 1978, there have been plenty of excuses for horses who won the Kentucky Derby, won the Preakness Stakes and then failed in the Belmont Stakes.
One stumbled at the start. Another got a bad ride. Another never saw the winner coming up on the far outside. And so it went, year after year -- until Smarty Jones became the latest entry in the long line of failed opportunities.
Smarty Jones's folks had no excuses.
"He ran his race," jockey Stewart Elliott said after Birdstone ran down Smarty Jones in deep stretch Saturday to post a 1-length upset victory.
"He just didn't win."
Trainer John Servis said he had worried that after two sharp victories, his colt would be too keyed up for the Belmont, too eager to run and too hard to control. That situation bodes ill in a 1 1/2-mile race over Belmont's sweeping, sandy turns. And when the race was over, Servis said he knew early that his fears had been realized.
"It just didn't look like he settled as good as he did in his other races," Servis said. "I didn't feel good down the backstretch."
Still, Servis wasn't making excuses. He said he had done everything he could to prepare Smarty Jones for the race and didn't know, even in retrospect, what he could have done differently.
The 1-length defeat was costly. It cost Smarty Jones's owners a $5 million Triple Crown bonus that would have made the colt the all-time leading Thoroughbred money-earner. It also forfeited the stud-fee-enhancing title of "Triple Crown winner."
Birdstone, a winner almost lost in the shuffle, now resumes the prominent place he held among 3-year-olds back in January. He won the Champagne Stakes at Belmont last October and came back to win an allowance race in Florida on Valentine's Day. But then he was a bad fifth in the Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park and eighth in the Kentucky Derby.
Trainer Nick Zito said Birdstone will be pointed to the Travers Stakes at Saratoga and then to the Breeders' Cup Classic at Lone Star Park in October. Smarty Jones also is heading for the Classic.
In other weekend racing at Belmont Park:
-- Meteor Storm stormed from well back in the field to take Saturday's $400,000 Manhattan Handicap by 1 1/4 lengths over Millennium Dragon. Mr O'Brien was just a nose farther back in third while the favorite, Stroll, faded in the final furlong and finished sixth of nine. Meteor Storm, a 5-year-old, British-bred son of Bigstone ran 1 1/4 mile on firm turf in 1:59.34. Meteor Storm, based in California, now has won three straight stakes races and six of 14 lifetime starts. Jose Valdivia Jr. rode for trainer Wally Dollase. "He's a monster," Valdivia said. "We came to this national stage in New York on such a great day and we got the job done."
-- Fire Slam got running room on the rail when he needed it and went through to win Saturday's $200,000 Riva Ridge Breeders' Cup Stakes for 3-year-olds by a head over Teton Forest. Abbondanza was third. Fire Slam, a son of Grand Slam, ran 7 furlongs in 1:20.94 for Pat Day. He came into the race off a big win in the Matt Winn at Churchill Downs and now has five wins from eight lifetime starts.
-- Intercontinental had to split rivals at the top of the stretch in Saturday's $250,000 Just a Game Breeders' Cup Handicap for fillies and mares before going on to win by 1 1/4 lengths. Sent off as the favorite, the 4-year-old, British-bred daughter of Danehill completed the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:33.33 for jockey Jerry Bailey. Vanguardia was second and Intercontinental's stablemate, Etoile Montante, was third. Intercontinental now has won all three of her U.S. starts. In Europe and England, she was 4-for-9 in her first two seasons. "The only knock against this filly," said trainer Bobby Frankel, "is that she gets a little rank in her races. If she gets to settle, she could maybe be the best filly in the country."
-- Speightstown took the lead from Cat Genius at the top of the stretch in Saturday's $200,000 True North Breeders' Cup Handicap and drew clear to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Pohave was third. Speightstown, the favorite, ran 6 furlongs with John Velazquez up, in 1:08.04. The lightly raced, 6-year-old son of Gone West, has won four of five starts in the past year after sitting out more than a year and a half. "He's always been a talented horse," said trainer Todd Pletcher. "Unfortunately, nagging injuries have gotten in the way of him showing his best."
-- Bear Fan, the odds-on favorite, went right to the lead in Saturday's $150,000 Vagrancy Handicap for fillies and mares and won with authority. It was 9 lengths back to Smok'n Frolic in second and Aspen Gal was third. Bear Fan, a 5-year-old Pine Bluff mare, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:14.46 for jockey John Velazquez. She now has won four straight races and eight of her 12 starts. "She wanted to run as soon as the gate opened and she's not the type of horse you can hold back," Velazquez said.
-- In Friday's $250,000 Acorn Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, Island Sand rallied between rivals on the turn, came wide for a clear shot and won by 1 3/4 lengths over Society Selection. Friendly Michelle was third. Island Sand, a daughter of Tabasco Cat, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:34.89. "That worked out really well," said winning trainer Larry Jones. "She wasn't all that far back and this race was loaded with speed." He said the $300,000 Mother Goose on June 26 will be next for Island Sand.
-- Sunday, Artie Schiller stayed near the front in the $100,000 Hill Prince Stakes for 3-year-olds, then took charge and won by 1 3/4 lengths over Timo. Big Booster was third. Artie Schhiller, with Richard Migliore in the irons, ran 9 furlongs on a firm inner turf course in 1:50.06.
With the Triple Crown races over, it's time to look ahead, both to the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships this October at Lone Star Park and to May 7, 2005 -- next year's Kentucky Derby.
-- Lunarpal, a 2-year-old son of Successful Appeal, successfully tried the Churchill Downs surface for the second time Saturday, winning the $125,000 Kentucky Breeders' Cup Stakes by a neck. The bay colt was all over the track despite the best efforts of jockey Shane Sellers, hopping at the start, breaking outward, drifting out at the top of the stretch and then leaning in during the final yards.
At the end, he was where he needed to be -- the winner's circle. Lunarpal ran the 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:04.07. Consolidator was second and Smoke Warning third. Lunarpal, trained by Steve Asmussen for Heiligbrodt Racing Stable, now has won all three of his starts. He captured the Juvenile at Churchill Downs his last time out after winning a maiden event at Keeneland in April. One to watch.
-- In the 100,000 Flash Stakes on Friday at Belmont Park, Primal Storm justified his favorite's role, leading most of the way to a 7-length victory over Winning Expression. Gold Joy was third in the field of just five juveniles.
Primal Storm, a Kentucky-bred son of Storm Boot, finished the 5 furlongs in 57.49 seconds. He had to wait out a stewards' look at a bumping incident before being declared official winner.
-- In the filly ranks, Souvenir Gift opened up a good lead in the stretch and went on to win Sunday's $75,000 Cinderella Stakes at Hollywood Park by 4 1/2 lengths over Fortunate Event. The favorite, Swiss Please, finished third. Souvenir Gift ran 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:04.8 under Mike Smith. "She was very professional, really nice," Smith said. Jose Valdivia Jr., who rode Fortunate Event, said more distance will suit his filly. "She has no business running 5 furlongs, 5 1/2," he said. "I don't think any of these fillies are going to be competing with her once they stretch her out to two turns. She is the real deal."
In other weekend racing:
North Light scored a 1 1/2-length victory in Saturday's Epsom Derby, providing jockey Kieren Fallon his second straight win in the prestigious race. Rule of Law was second and Let the Lion Roar third. Fallon won last year aboard Kris Kin. North light is trained by Sir Michael Stoute.
Stellar Jayne pressed the pace in Saturday's $150,000 Dogwood Breeders' Cup Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, then went on to win by a handy 3 1/4 lengths over Dynaville. The favorite, Ender's Sister, led early but faded to finish third of five. Stellar Jayne, a daughter of Wild Rush, ran the 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:43.14 for jockey Robby Albarado.
Lovely Rafaela, a 16-1 chance on the tote, moved up to engage pace-setting Western Hemisphere at the top of the stretch in Saturday's $175,000 Honeymoon Breeders' Cup Handicap for 3-year-old fillies, then just got up in the final strides to win by a nose. Sagitta Ra was third and the favorite, Ticker Tape, finished fourth. Lovely Rafaela, with Victor Espinoza up, got the 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:49.96. She is a Kentucky-bred daughter of A.P. Indy. "I didn't know who won," said Espinoza. "It was very tough. The last few jumps, I stopped hitting my filly and hand-rode her. She just responded." Both top finishers are expected back for the American Oaks.
Coconut Girl upset favored Ema Bovary, winner of nine straight, in Saturday's $100,000 Desert Stormer Handicap for fillies and mares. Racing from just off the pace, Coconut Girl got the lead turning for home and had plenty left to hold off the favorite. Stormica was third, well back. Coconut Girl, a 5-year-old Cryptoclearance mare, ran 6 furlongs in 1:08.91. Espinoza completed the stakes double. He said he "surprised her" by keeping after his mare "all the way, rather than taking her back." Trainer Paul Aguirre said the victory was a pleasant surprise and credited Espinoza.
Sunday, Summer Wind overhauled pace-setting Pesci in the stretch to win the $100,000 Hawthorne Handicap by 1 length. Miss Loren was third. Summer Wind, a 4-year-old Siberian Summer filly, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:41.56 for Victor Espinoza.
A Bit O'Gold blew away the field in Sunday's $150,000 (Canadian) Plate Trial Stakes and stamped himself a likely favorite for the $1 million (Canadian) Queen's Plate in three weeks' time. A Bit O'Gold, a gelded son of Gold Fever, bided his time through most of the Trial. When he sent to the leaders, he had no trouble taking charge and won easily in 1:51.74. Niigon was second and Little Bentley third. "He was spot on for this race," said winning jockey Jono Jones. "He did everything perfect." Twenty-two Trial winners have gone on to win the Queen's Plate - but it hasn't happened recently. The last was Alydeed in 1992.
Inish Glora went out to an easy lead in Saturday's $250,000 (Canadian) Nassau Stakes, leaving plenty in the tank to repel a late charge by Ocean Drive. At the wire, Inish Glora, with Todd Kabel up, won by 3/4 length. Classic Stamp was third. "I certainly wasn't going to go any quicker than I had to," Kabel said of the leisurely pace. "So I just bided my time before I let her sprint home." Still, the final time of 1:40.38 for the 1 1/16 mile was second-fastest in the event since 1995.
Shiny Sheet, a 6-year-old daughter of Press Card, won Saturday's $100,000 John W. Rooney Memorial by 2 1/2 lengths over Aztec Pearl. Jaramar Rain was third. The field scratched down to six starters when the race was moved off the turf. Jeremy Rose rode Shiny Sheet over the 9 furlongs in 1:52.38.
Sunday, Coined for Success set a lively pace in the $75,000 Nick Shuk Memorial for 3-year-olds and went on to win rather easily, by 2 1/2 lengths over Wanaka. Paddington was third. Coined for Success, a gelded son of Gold Token, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:45.10.
In Hand settled off the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Greenwood Cup Handicap, came five-wide into the stretch and survived some bumping at the end to win by a neck over Host. Monkey Puzzle was third in the 1 1/2-mile event, clocked in 2:33.32 over yielding turf. In Hand is a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Belong to Me.
Jane's Luck led from gate to wire in winning Saturday's $75,000 Deputed Testamony Stakes by 1/2 length over Andiamo, Water Cannon battled on despite a slipped saddle that hampered jockey Ryan Fogelsonger and finished third. Jane's Luck, with Jozbin Santana in the irons, ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:46.73 on a sloppy track. He is a gelded son of Polish Numbers.
Ask the Lord battled with Eagle Time for the lead in Saturday's $75,000 Slipton Fell Handicap, then edged clear in deep stretch to win by 1 length. It was 6 3/4 lengths farther back to the favorite, Sir Cherokee, and Crafty Rocket completed the order of finish. Ask the Lord, a 7-year-old Lord at War gelding, completed the 1 mile and 70 yards in 1:42.25.
Rudirudy broke slowly from the inside post position in Saturday's $60,000 Wolf Hill Stakes, steadied as the field entered the turn and then came out for room before winning by 1 1/4 lengths. Manofglory was second and Blakelock third in the 5-furlong turf event, clocked in 56.04 seconds. Rudirudy is a 9-year-old Jolie's Halo gelding.
Forest Music, with one Stewart Elliott aboard, led from gate to wire to win Sunday's $55,000 Crank It Up Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. At the wire, the daughter of Unbridled's Song was 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Schedule. Forty Moves was third. Forest Music ran 5 furlongs in the slop in 56.90 seconds.
Josh's Madelyn let longshot Ho Joy shoot out to a big lead in Saturday's $50,000 Panthers Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, then reeled her in on the turn for home. In the stretch, Josh's Madelyn drew clear to win by 1 3/4 lengths with Platinum Ballet closing to take second. Defuhr was third. Pick of the Pack, the pari-mutuel favorite, was home fourth and Ho Joy faded to finish sixth. Josh's Madelyn, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Quiet American, ran 1 mile in 1:36.01.
South Africa stuck close to pace-setting Britt's Jules in Saturday's $50,000 Airline Stakes for 3-year-olds, went to the lead at the top of the stretch and prevailed by 3/4 length. Smalltown Slew was along to take second with Britt's Jules holding third. South Africa, a Kenucky-bred son of Capetown, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:09.63.
Sunday, Leslie's Love led all the way to a 1-length victory in the $50,000 Suthern Accent Stakes for fillies and mares. The 7-year-old daughter of Combat Ready, with Gerard Melancon riding, ran 6 furlongs in 1:11.23. Joyce Ann was second and Cielo Girl third.
Cherokee's Boy led from gate to wire in winning Saturday's $50,000 Summer Classic Stakes. At the wire, the 4-year-old Citidancer colt was 4 3/4 lengths to the good of the favorite, Prince Benjamin. Jackyscraftychance was third. Cherokee's Boy ran 9 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:53.73.
Up Anchor rode the rail to a 1 1/2-length victory in Saturday's $38,000 Awad Handicap. Saltire was second, with Marley's Revenge third. Up Anchor, a son of Polish Navy, ran the "about" 1 mile on yielding turf in 1:39.64. The race is named for the winner of the 1994 Arlington Million.
Jimmy Cracked Corn shipped in from Chicago to win Saturday's $40,000 St. Paul Stakes. With Derek Bell in the irons, Jimmy Cracked Corn stalked the pace, then got through on the rail to beat Mississippi Rain. Notonetoquit was third. Jimmy Cracked Corn finished the 6 furlongs in 1:08 4/5, just a tick off the track record.
News and notes
Former Daily Racing Form standout John McEvoy will publish his first novel, "Blind Switch," next month. The book will be available through Amazon, the Barnes and Noble Web site or from Poisoned Pen Press of Scottsdale, Ariz. John says the book is "a crime novel with a horse racing background, sort of Carl Hiasson meets Dick Francis." Judging from John's illustrious nonfiction work, "Blind Switch" will be worth tracking down.