Smarty Jones' trainer Servis is familiar with I'll Have Another's Triple Crown chase

Smarty Jones (right) is challenged by Birdstone in stretch during the 2004 Belmont Stakes. DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Smarty Jones (right) is challenged by Birdstone in stretch during the 2004 Belmont Stakes. DAVID SWANSON / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Posted: June 08, 2012

THE LAST 8 YEARS, John Servis said, have gone faster than those 3 weeks. Those 3 weeks would be the ones between the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, if you are with a horse going for the Triple Crown.

That was Smarty Jones in 2004. Trainer Servis and jockey Stewart Elliott returned to their day-to-day lives at Philadelphia Park after Smarty won the Preakness by the largest margin in history. So, they had their routines, but nothing was normal.

"The buildup is the toughest thing of all,'' Elliott said. “It's easier riding the race. I just wanted to get to the race so you could just do it and get it over with.''

Each morning just before 6, Smarty would take the track by himself for his gallop. It had become so big that the track was closed to all traffic — except Smarty.

None of that, however, made the time go faster. Time basically stopped after the Preakness.

“I wished it was the next day,'' Servis said. “It seemed like it took forever. It really did.''

That is where the I'll Have Another people have been for the last 2 1/2 weeks, willing the clock to go faster. Eventually, Saturday at Belmont Park will arrive. And they really will run the race.

“I think we might have a Triple Crown winner,'' Elliott said. “He looks good. He looks very good. He sits back. It shouldn't be a great big field. A little bit of luck, we might be in action.''

Servis liked I'll Have Another leading up to the Derby.

“If you throw out the one race, the horse obviously got hurt because he was off a long time, he's never been worse than second and he just finished beating what I think is the best horse in California and nobody is talking about him,'' Servis said. “I didn't love him. I hedged a little bit when he drew the 19-hole. I ended up betting $20 to win on him.''

Smarty dominated the Derby and Preakness. I'll Have Another has been winning with his heart as much as his talent.

“With his pedigree and the way he runs, with his mental attitude, you'd think he would love the mile and a half,'' Servis said. “The only advice I would tell [the connections] is to take your time and enjoy every minute of it because you're going to look up once this flash is done flying by and you're going to be 5 years down the road. It's crazy. Everything happens so fast.''

Then, they run the race. And you have to deal with the result. Eight years later, Elliott and Servis still revel in the Derby and Preakness and have to deal with the Belmont.

“Sometimes you ride a race, especially a longer race and you know in the beginning it's not working, the setup just isn't right and I knew that going into the first turn,'' Elliott said. “I said, ‘This is never going to work, a mile and a half.'?"

It didn't, of course, when two other jockeys took early runs at Smarty.

"The first part of the race, I was trying to force him back and settle because that was always the way I did it with him,'' Elliott said. “You had to get him before he got you. Well, he had me. And then you know it's not going to work so I tried letting him out a little, maybe don't fight him. I tried giving him his head a little and that didn't work either. He just wanted to go more. It was just a no-win deal. I know I'm going to be in trouble the last sixteenth, but maybe nobody's coming that's all you can hope for."

Smarty ran the other contenders to the back of the pack. If nobody comes, he wins by 8 and they build statues. Birdstone was coming.

“It only took one to get me,'' Elliott said.

Going into the Belmont, Servis had two concerns. He knew Smarty was starting to show signs of wear and tear. And he knew the horse had a target on his back.

“The one thing I knew is that going into the Belmont, my horse has won the two legs, he's going to have a bull's-eye as big as he is,'' Servis said. “They know he's the horse to beat. If they can beat him, they can win the race. And my horse was starting to show some signs of being tired.''

In fact, nearing the end, Smarty took a bit longer to get into his gallops, a little stiff as he started. It all caught up to him after the race and he was never able to train correctly again.

Still …

“He seemed to run awful good in the Belmont to me, but … '' Servis said. “If we'd of just had things a little more civilized, I think he wins.''

Servis ran a horse at Pimlico the day before this year's Preakness. He was listening to satellite radio on his way to Baltimore. The 2004 Preakness race call came on.

“I have listened to that thing a hundred times,'' Servis said. “That day, when they were at the top of the stretch and they say he's going to win by a colossal margin, my hair stood up like never before. Was that his best race ever? Might have been. Maybe that's why he came up a little short in the Belmont.''

Interestingly, Elliott said he was not all that nervous when the horses headed for the gate in the Belmont.

“The race that I felt the most pressure was the Arkansas Derby, my first million-dollar race,'' Elliott said. “He had to run good to get him to the Derby. That got me ready. When I got to the Derby, it was almost like I had done it before.''

Elliott and Servis both said they are hoping I'll Have Another wins it.

“The only issue I think he has is that I think he's going to see the real Union Rags,'' Servis said. “And I think it's going to be a horse race. I'm not saying he can't win. I think he can still win the Triple Crown, but I don't think it's going to be easy for him.''

It never is, not even when you have a horse that is clearly better than the competition. There is much you can control, but much you can't. And sometimes the wrong horse wins.

Contact Dick Jerardi at jerardd@phillynews.com

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