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2012 Triple Crown: Heartbreak For Smarty Jones In 2004

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It's an understatement to claim that horse racing fans have seen a lot of heartbreak in the Triple Crown since 2004. Whether it was the shocking defeat of the brilliant Spectacular Bid in 1979, Real Quiet's losing a head-bobbing photo to Victory Gallop by a nose in 1998, or Big Brown fading into an unthinkable DNF in 2008 - the Belmont Stakes has ripped out the hearts of fans hoping for a Triple Crown for over three decades.

One of the more stunning Triple Crown failure in the last 30+ years was that of Smarty Jones in 2004. After brilliant displays in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, the undefeated Smarty Jones rolled into Belmont Park seemingly in a class well beyond any of his peers. While race fans understood that the Belmont was no sure thing, 2004 just "felt" like the year that the drought would come to an end. Never mind Smarty's speedy running style or his miler's pedigree, the Pennsylvania-bred son of Elusive Quality was so much better than his rivals during that Triple Crown season that it seemed nothing could derail his path to racing immortality.

Sadly, as well all are painfully aware of, Smarty wasn't invincible as he saw his Triple Crown dreams fade in the final furlong as the unheralded Birdstone galloped past the 7/20 favorite.

Below is a replay of the 2004 Belmont Stakes, along with some thoughts on the pace of the race.

Watching the replay of the 2004 Belmont, and listening to the post-race commentary, Smarty Jones was pressed from multiple angles throughout the early stages of the race. For a horse with a questionable pedigree to go a mile and a quarter (let alone a mile and a half), and given Smarty's general style of running up near the lead, the pressure proved too much to handle in the final furlongs.

Below are the splits from the 2004 Belmont:

1/4: 24.33
1/2: 48.65
3/4: 1:11.76
Mile: 1:35.44
1 1/4 2:00.52
Final 2:27.50
Internal Splits
1/4: 24.33
1/2: 24.32
3/4: 23.11
Mile: 23.68
1 1/4 25.08
Final: 26.98

A couple of observations from those fractions and splits:

  • Check out the 1 1/4 elapsed time of 2:00.52; that is an incredibly fast time for a mile and a quarter at Belmont. Heck, that's be a great time for the Derby and Smarty still had another quarter mile to go.
  • A common factor that contributes to horses winning while running on or near the lead (especially in routes) is the ability to "relax" at certain points of the race. Check the middle splits put up by Smarty in the Belmont - 23.11 and 23.68 in the third and fourth quarters. If Smarty Jones had been able to match his first half mile in the second half mile, it's likely he would have had enough energy left to hold off the grinding Birdstone given the small margin of defeat. Instead, he was running sub-24 second quarters.
  • Smarty was completely gassed in that final quarter mile; the internal split for the last quarter was 26.98, which means Smarty came home in over 27 seconds when you factor in the final margin of one length between first and second.