Elmont, N.Y., June 5, 2004 — Birdstone swept by Smarty Jones in deep stretch to upset the 136th Belmont Stakes and the 120,139 fans who packed Belmont Park in hopes of witnessing Triple Crown history.
The record crowd cheered Smarty Jones loudly as he swept into the homestretch with a three-length lead, but the roar of the fans was silenced when Smarty Jones tired badly during the final sixteenth of the 1 1/2-mile “Test of Champions” allowing Birdstone to deny racing its 12th Triple Crown winner.
Jockey Stewart Elliott had a difficult time rating Smarty Jones, who took the lead after the first half-mile of the race. As the field raced down Belmont’s long backstretch, it was as if the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner had a bull’s-eye on his hindquarters, as the rest of the field took turns firing their best shot at him. First it was Eddington who ranged up along side of Smarty Jones, pressing him from the outside. After Smarty Jones put Eddington away, Rock Hard Ten came up the rail to battle the Pennsylvania-bred.
Elliot had a big hold, but Smarty had his mouth wide open down the backstretch fighting Elliot every step of the way. Smarty Jones wasn’t exactly rank, but he didn’t rate kindly like he did in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. That was the key to the race: Smarty Jones never got a chance to settle, which is essential when running the marathon distance of the Belmont.
“I was pressured but still felt like I had enough horse,” Elliott said after the race.
Jockey Edgar Prado, who upset War Emblem’s bid for a Triple Crown two years ago when he rode Sarava to victory, apologized for spoiling yet another Triple Crown bid.
“I’m very sorry,” Prado said, “but I had to do my job. This is just part of the business.”
Smarty Jones’ trainer John Servis lamented after the race that: “I knew the way he was dragging Stewart to the lead that he wasn’t as relaxed as he was in his previous races. He deserves a rest; maybe that’s why he was so rank.”
Smarty Jones had won eight straight races and hoped to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. He became the ninth since 1978 to win the Derby and Preakness and come up short in the Belmont, joining Spectacular Bid (1979), Pleasant Colony (1981), Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), Charismatic (1999), War Emblem (2002), and Funny Cide (2003).
Birdstone is owned by Marylou Whitney, who bred the son of Grindstone in Kentucky. He was the only other Grade I winner in the race besides Smarty Jones. He is trained by Nick Zito, a New Yorker who had previously run 11 horses in the Belmont and finished second five times.
Royal Assault came on to finish third, followed by Eddington, Rock Hard Ten, Tap Dancer, Master David, Caiman and Purge. The final time was 2:27.50.
It was the largest crowd to ever watch a sporting event in New York, and they turned out on a cloudy day that threatened rain but never produced more than an occasional drizzle.
Birdstone paid $74, $14, and $8.60. Smarty Jones, who went postward at 1-5, returned $3.30 and $2.60. Zito also trains Royal Assault, who finished third and paid $6.10.
Van Cushny is a New York-based attorney specializing in equine law. He is also the editor and publisher of Steeplestakes.com.