Smarty Jones, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner who will attempt to become racing's 12th Visa Triple Crown winner on Saturday by winning the 136th running of the Grade, $1 million Belmont Stakes, galloped this morning with exercise rider Pete Van Trump. Smarty Jones arrived Wednesday from his home base at Philadelphia Park, and immediately made himself at home. This morning, trainer John Servis held a press conference at the barn. "It is really beautiful here, and I love the barn I'm in," Servis said. "But, to tell you the truth, I am really glad I waited to come in on Wednesday. There is a lot of media here, and it cane be overwhelming. The problem is that there are a lot of people that have never been around horses, so they don't know how to act. They see `Smarty' and they are so intent on him that they forget about all the activity around them.
Peter Pan Stakes winner Purge galloped 1 3/8 miles Thursday morning as he moved one day closer to Saturday's historic clash with Kentucky Derby and Preakness Smarty Jones as the latter goes after the Visa Triple Crown and the $5-million Visa Triple Crown Challenge bonus.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, responding to a question of whether all the contestants were running for second money, said, "It wouldn't be right if I wasn't going over there trying to win." But, he added, that if Purge couldn't win, he would root for Smarty Jones. As to what advantage Purge might have over his earlier two defeats by Smarty Jones in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, Pletcher said his colt's gain in experience, his training on his home track, his win in the track's Peter Pan and a good workout over the oval were all good points for Purge. He also believes the son of Pulpit has learned to relax and rate kindly coming into the Belmont Stakes.
Trainer Nick Zito has his pair of Belmont Stakes aces in hand in his barn following the arrival of Birdstone on Wednesday by van from Saratoga. He joins Royal Assault as Zito's two uncoupled runners for Saturday's Belmont. Both galloped Thursday morning over Belmont's training track, and they will carry their work to the main track on Friday for a morning gallop, Zito said. Zito said he has always believed Royal Assault, bred and owned by Tracy Farmer, could be a horse for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes. And he continues to remind fans and media that Birdstone, bred and owned by Mary Lou Whitney, is a quality horse that has the Grade I Champagne Stakes victory here as part of his impressive resume. Having said all of that, Zito acknowledged that Smarty Jones is quite a hurdle for the rest of the Belmont field to overcome.
Hall of Fame trainer Robert Frankel has indicated that the eight Smarty Jones antagonists in the Belmont Stakes field may all be running for second money. In fact, he said he would instruct jockey Jose Santos to go into the race with Master David as if the dual classic winner weren't even there. He said he wants Santos to pay attention to all of the other horses in the race, hoping that he can defeat them. Following Wednesday's post position draw, where Master David drew the inside post (1), Frankel said, "Realistically, I'm very relaxed. I would like to win, but I don't really think I can." And in the event that Master David should win, Frankel said he would relish being the villain again. Frankel acknowledged that originally he had no interest in running Master David in the Belmont Stakes but heard that fellow Hall of Fame conditioner H. Allen Jerkins liked Master David and was disappointed that the colt probably would not be in the race. Frankel recalled that Jerkens had said he would work the horse long and then put him in the race. "So, I went out and worked him long and now we're running in the race," Frankel said. "If we win, I might give Allen 5 percent."
Frankel said Master David, who galloped 1 1/2 miles Thursday morning as his preparation progressed toward Saturday's date, has been training well "and anything can happen in a race."
Frankel acknowledged that Smarty Jones has stamped himself as a very good horse, but not yet in Secretariat's class, in the trainer's mind. "I would put him in the class of Spectacular Bid and Seattle Slew," Frankel said.
Rock Hard Ten
Preakness runner-up Rock Hard Ten, who drew post 5 in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, schooled in the starting gate this morning with New York Racing Association's Consultant Starter, Bobby Duncan. Duncan and NYRA's assistant starters are hoping to avoid the side Rock Hard Ten revealed during the Preakness loading process. A son of Kris S., Rock Hard Ten kicked, bucked and refused to load, delaying the start of the Preakness for a few minutes. He was, however, all business once the starting gate opened and ran second to Smarty Jones despite a wide trip.
"It's tough to say exactly why he was so unhappy, but horses sometimes get a little stage fright, Duncan said. "Once he was running, he was a willing performer." Take one look at Rock Hard Ten and it is easy to see why he is uncomfortable in the starting gate. At 17 hands tall and weighing approximately 1,200 pounds, the physically imposing son of Kris S. is larger than most Thoroughbreds and his frame does not afford him much room in the gate. "He's nose-to-tail touching the gate," Duncan said. "Horses are naturally claustrophobic and nature provides for them to flee to survive. When you lock them up, it takes that defense away."
Rock Hard Ten has been a cool customer during morning training hours, but Duncan says there is a chance that the noise from an expected record crowd of 120,000 could send the colt back to his old ways. If Rock Hard Ten is problematic for NYRA starters on Saturday, Duncan said the crew would blindfold the colt prior to loading him in the gate. Rock Hard Ten schooled with the blindfold earlier this week. "He's been good about everything," Duncan said. "We've worked with him to try to understand instructions and leadership skills. He seems to be responding well to that. As everyone saw in the Preakness, you don't want to get in a fight with him. He's just too big and too strong. We're hoping we've got this thing going now, where he'll just trust us."
Eddington, the third-place finisher in the Preakness, drew post 8 for the Belmont Stakes. He will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, who is a two-time winner of the Belmont. Bailey, along with Eddington's trainer, Mark Hennig, have repeatedly said the colt loses focus and interest at various points in his races. In an effort to "wake up" the Unbridled colt, Hennig has given Eddington two sharp workouts leading up to the race. On May 24th, Eddington earned the bullet after working a half mile in :46 2/5, handily. It was the fastest of 36 works at the distance that day. Last Sunday, Eddington had his final pre-Belmont work, going five furlongs in :59, handily. The move was the second fastest of 70 at the distance. On Saturday, Eddington may play part of the pace in the Belmont with Purge and/or Smarty Jones, something Hennig won't mind. "Any kind of keenness will be a good thing," Hennig said. "I think Jerry lost a little confidence in the horse after the Preakness as I did. I think we were both a little frustrated and angry at the horse. I think his work on Sunday restored some of that confidence. I know Jerry came away with the feeling that he was on a much more aggressive horse."
Victor Achar's Caiman galloped a mile and a half over Belmont's main track this morning. The son of Malibu Moon will be a longshot in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. "He came out of the gallop well," said trainer Angel Medina. "He'll go out tomorrow at six o'clock and gallop between a mile and a quarter and a mile and a mile and a half." Although Caiman is 50-1 on the morning line, his trainer is staying optimistic about the Belmont. "He's ready for Saturday," Medina said. "If you don't run, you can't win." Caiman is stabled in barn 5, along with Smarty Jones. Medina said he is trying to block out all the hoopla around the barn. "There are so many people around," Medina said. "Fortunately, security is very high. I'm just trying to make believe it's just me working with my horse."
Gilbert Campbell's Tap Dancer, also 50-1 on the morning line, exercised at Monmouth Park this morning and will train there again Friday before shipping to New York Friday afternoon. "He galloped a mile and a half this morning," trainer Ned Allard said from Monmouth. "He's an experienced horse and he handles himself well, so he doesn't require any schooling at the gate or paddock." Tap Dancer drew post position seven in the field of nine. With his off-the-pace style, post position in the mile-and-a-half race is not very important to Tap Dancer. "Going a mile and a half with the size of the field running in the Belmont, posts probably won't matter," Allard said. "I just hope we can catch them." Tap Dancer is scheduled to train at 6 a.m. Friday then board a van to Belmont at 9:30 a.m.