The wall of sound. I will never forget that wall of sound.
When Smarty Jones extended his lead at the top of the Belmont stretch – a move that many believe was premature by jockey Stewart Elliot – there was a wall of sound that engulfed the track. It felt like a 747 was taking off from inside my stomach. The noise consumed you. It was so loud that I was screaming at the top of my lungs and I couldn’t hear my own voice.
Less than 30 seconds later, you could hear a pin drop. Birdstone, a great horse in his own right, had caught up to Smarty Jones and passed him the final, testing quarter-mile that separates the Belmont Stakes from the Kentucky Derby.
It was by far the most exhilarating sporting event I have ever been to in my life. Yet there is a very good chance that California Chrome will do it one better in the biggest Belmont Stakes ever. I believe a decade is enough time to recover.
If you want an indication of just how big Smarty Jones was, look at this chart of Preakness ratings over the past 10 years. You’ll see that gigantic spike for Smarty in 2004, off of only a Derby win. With a Triple Crown on the line, Smarty Jones changed the calibration for an entire sport.
When Secretariat won the Belmont 31 years before Smarty, 63,000 people showed up. There were twice as many stuffed into Belmont Park in 2004. When Smarty Jones left the gate, there were some 22 million people watching.
Smarty’s story, like Chrome’s this year, was one of a fairy tale. Smarty nearly died early in his training when he hit his head against a gate – his career was almost over before it started. He raced at tiny Philadelphia Park to begin his career. He prepped for the Derby at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, which just happened to institute a one-time-only $5 million bonus to commemorate its 100th anniversary for any horse that could win Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby and Kentucky Derby.
My dad and I have been to every Belmont Stakes since 1999. The event is fun each and every year, whether it’s Palace Malice winning me money or Big Brown pulling up on a 100-degree day during which they ran out of water and the toilets broke.
As we approached Belmont on that morning, everything felt different. There was a massive backup on the parkway just to get there some two hours before the first race even went off.
The track still allowed coolers but, in a post-9/11 world, every cooler had to be inspected. That meant a line of 100 people with coolers waiting to be inspected. They were all from Philadelphia, which meant we were surrounded by Flyers jerseys and McNabb jerseys.
“That’s not a good sign,” my dad said, pointing at four bro’s drinking beer in Eagles jerseys. “They don’t win anything.”
In fact, just this weekend, he brought that up again. “At least there won’t be any McNabb jerseys this year.” I believe he blames McNabb more than Stewart Elliot.
That whole day featured a buzz that is difficult to describe but you know when you feel it. The hop in everyone’s step. The excitement in every conversation. The shared feeling that you were about to witness history.
What makes Belmont different than Churchill Downs or Pimlico is that there is no infield crowd. Whereas those two get 120,000+ crowds with 80 percent in the infield, Belmont has all the crowd one side. It features more seats. It’s bigger. It’s expansive. It’s New York through and through.
As the horses made their way to the track, I got goosebumps. I am getting them right now thinking about it. Everything was building to this moment – you could feel an entire nation’s eyes descended on this track and these animals.
As the race began, Jerry Bailey on Eddington and Alex Solis on Rock Hard Ten engaged in what is politely described as race riding and more accurately described as sabotage. They ganged up on Smarty and wore out their horses trying to tire him out. We saw something similar on Saturday when Social Inclusion moved early and forced California Chrome to dispatch him before the top of the stretch.
As that played out at the 2004 Belmont Stakes, Smarty was ahead by daylight as he came from home. But the premature move from Elliot and the extra energy expended on the backstretch conspired to do in Smarty Jones. Birdstone, giving a perfect trip with no resistance, was able to eventually charge past the tiring Smarty.
What I’ll never forget is the moment when Smarty Jones, passed for the first time in his life, gamely fought back but he had nothing left. When they crossed the wire, it was devastating. There was no joy in Belmont. It was frightening. It was sad. It was quiet. It was over.
For me, there was a slight consolation. Smarty Jones was the most bet-on horse in the history of horse racing. So much so that the odds for other horses were completely out of whack. About four hours prior, an update of the odds showed that Birdstone was 80-1. I put $5 on him to win. Even though he went off at 35-1, that was still a nice $160 payout.
I would have gladly paid that $160 back to see history.
The following year, Afleet Alex won the 2005 Belmont Stakes with the most impressive move I’ve ever seen from a horse. It was breathtaking. It was the first Belmont that didn’t feature a Triple Crown try in four years. It felt good to see the favorite won.
“We needed that,” my dad said as we left the track that night.
The memories of Smarty Jones never fade. When I tell people I go to the Belmont every year, they invariably ask about 2004. When people ask me about the best sporting event I’ve been to, I will invariably talk about 2004.
Smarty Jones’ close loss took place just a few months before the Red Sox won their first World Series title and just months after Phil Mickelson won his first Masters. It seems as if the past 10 years have seen many title droughts go by the wayside, whether it’s for the New Orleans Saints, the Chicago White Sox, the Seattle Seahawks or LeBron.
The Triple Crown, though, remains as elusive as ever. That’s why me and 120,000 of my closest friends will pour into Belmont on June 7 – a date that doubles as my birthday – as millions more watch at home to witness history.
Horse racing is dead? Hardly.
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