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Published: Sunday, 6/6/2004

Birdstone gets Smarty

BY POHLA SMITH
BLOCK NEWS ALLIANCE

ELMONT, N.Y. - Longshot Birdstone, whose trainer said all week was running for second, ran down Smarty Jones in a late stretch yesterday and ruined the little red hero s bid to become racing s 12th Triple Crown champion by winning the Belmont Stakes by a length.

It was Smarty Jones first defeat in nine career starts, and it left horse racing - and millions of new fans who adopted him as their blue-collar hero - without a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

The Pennsylvania-bred horse from Philadelphia Park instead became the sixth Kentucky Derby-Preakness Stakes winner to be tripped up in the 11/2-mile crown finale in the past eight years.

“It hurt, but we had a really good run,” trainer John Servis said. “I told [his family] that we re not going to put our heads down. We re proud.”

In winning before a record crowd of 120,139, Birdstone trainer Nick Zito broke an 0-for-11 Belmont schneid that included five second-place finishes. He saddled two horses yesterday -36-1 Birdstone and Royal Assault, who finished third.

“What can I say?” Zito said. “It was one emotional thing. It s sad because Smarty is good for racing.”

On the other hand, he said, “I told a few people this is perhaps my greatest win.”

Birdstone s jockey, Edgar Prado, also was emotional. His voice broke as he did a television interview at the same time he was galloping Birdstone back to the winner s circle after winning in 2 minutes, 27.5 seconds.

“I m very sorry for Mr. Servis and [owner] Mr. [Roy] Chapman, but I had to do my job. ... I m very sorry.”

Smarty Jones jockey, Stewart Elliott, said Prado also apologized to him as they warmed down their horses after the finish.

“I said, That s horse racing, ” Elliott said.

By the time the TV cameras got to Zito after his victory, Servis already had made his way to him to offer his congratulations.

Smarty Jones took the lead early, around the 3/4-mile pole, but Servis said he already thought he was in trouble because the colt was pulling hard against the bit under the pressure from Purge and Rock Hard Ten, who were with him from the start.

In the Derby and Preakness, he relaxed off the bit, and Servis never worried that his horse would expend all his energy before the finish.

“It hurts to say it, but it s one of the things that makes this sport so great,” Servis said. “That s horse racing, and that was as good as it gets.”

He said he had worried for the three weeks since the Preakness that Smarty Jones would be “too sharp,” or overanxious, and that was exactly what happened.

“It s frustrating because I knew as a trainer where I had to have him be and I didn t do it,” Servis said.

“He didn t run horrible. He got beat a length. ... [But] again, we got our championship. The Kentucky Derby was our championship. I read an article yesterday that was great. It said winning the Derby was like climbing Mount Everest. Winning the Triple Crown is like climbing Mount Everest three times, and we tried to climb the third time too fast.”

Elliott echoed the trainer in assessing the race.

“I tried to take hold and get [him] to settle ... [but] he was on the bit. He just never got a break. In the end, the mile-and-a-half just got to him.”

Along with seeing his horse fight Elliott, Servis quickly spotted the huge move Birdstone was making as he completed a charge from seventh place after the first quarter-mile.

“Birdstone was really running, and I was hoping he would flatten out,” Servis said. “Nick did a great job, and we came up a little short.”

The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Pohla Smith is a reporter for the Post-Gazette.



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