Somehow, 10 years have passed since the Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones, locally owned and stabled at humble Philadelphia Park, captured the national sports scene by winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, putting him in the position to become horse racing's first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.
That's the same spot California Chrome is in this week heading into Saturday's Belmont. Affirmed still has the most recent entry in the record book. That's a reminder that, holy shoot, Smarty Jones wasn't able to break the streak, either.
Servis will be watching Saturday, and rooting for California Chrome, but even after all this time the Belmont will take him back to that day 10 years ago when Smarty was caught in the final stretch by long shot Birdstone after a sapping duel with two other horses midway through the race.
"I think California Chrome is a very good horse and it looks like he's got those horses over a barrel right now. It's a feel-good story and I'm pulling for him," Servis said.
Chrome, a California-bred who comes from a quirky, one-horse stable and is trained by a septuagenarian who has never had a horse like this, is a feel-good story and the chestnut colt does seem to have things his way. But Smarty Jones had all that and more in 2004.
Smarty fractured his skull when he reared in a starting gate early in his training and he nearly died. He certainly was expected to lose an eye, and his racing career was in jeopardy before it even began. The colt pulled through, though, and once he reached the race track, all he did was win. In fact, he never did anything else, finishing first in eight starts before the Belmont.
On a sloppy track in Louisville, Smarty stalked the pace of a good horse named Lion Heart before pulling away to a 2¾-length Derby win. In Baltimore, Smarty won the Preakness with the same strategy, sitting just off Lion Heart until a mile into the race and then shifting into gear for an 11½-length win ahead of Rock Hard Ten and Eddington, a pair of speedy competitors who waited too long to fire.
That set up the Belmont, and not only did Philadelphia crave a champion, but the rest of the country joined the parade. More than 120,000, still the record, showed up on race day, waiting for that next Triple Crown winner. Belmont Park will be crowded again this Saturday and the racing world is still waiting.
The accepted explanation for what happened to Smarty Jones is that Rock Hard Ten and Eddington conspired to gang up on the favorite, forcing him to spend so much energy midway through the race that he would have nothing left at the finish. It's true enough as the race film confirms, but that doesn't mean those horses weren't trying to win themselves. Their trainers knew that for another horse to win, Smarty Jones had to lose.
"I don't want to get into all that. It was 10 years ago. But let's put it this way: I wasn't happy about it," Servis said. "I'm not blaming anybody. That's horse racing."
The race started out with an unremarkable pace, 48.65 seconds for the first half-mile, but then the two challengers took alternating runs at Smarty Jones. The second half-mile was run in a foolhardy 46.79 seconds. All three horses lost their stamina in the final half-mile of the 1½-mile race. Eddington and Rock Hard Ten faded to fourth and fifth, respectively, while Smarty held onto the lead until being passed by Birdstone in the final 70 yards. That close, and, now, that long ago.
"Unbelievable. It flies by," Servis said.
Hard feelings or not, Smarty Jones didn't lose because a pair of no-hopers ruined his day. Rock Hard Ten would continue racing until his 4-year-old season, and won two graded stakes races after the Belmont as well as the Santa Anita Handicap. Eddington finished in the money in another four graded stakes races, including a Grade I win. Even Birdstone, mocked as a lucky 38-to-1 longshot who fell into perfect fortune, won the Grade I Travers Stakes at Saratoga two months later.
In the last 50 years, only two Belmont Stakes have been as slow in the first half-mile and then finished as quickly as the 2004 race. All three races were nearly identical. Affirmed and Alydar took a lazy start in 1978, but Affirmed was pressed all the way after that. Swale had the same trip in 1984, chased hard by Play On and Preakness winner Gate Dancer after the first half-mile.
The fractions were the same, but the results were different. Affirmed and Swale had enough to hold on in their races. Smarty Jones didn't. After 10 years, it still hurts.
But that is also the reason the trains will be running again Saturday and the place will be packed. Doing this isn't easy, and no one wants to miss it. A good horse and a good story are no guarantee. It's a nice start, though.