It took 12 tries for trainer Nick Zito to win the Belmont Stakes. It took 2:27 2/5 for Birdstone to end that slump on Saturday afternoon at the expense of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Smarty Jones, who was looking to become the 12th Visa Triple Crown winner in the 136th running of the million-dollar, 1 1/2-mile "Test of the Champion." And Birdstone's one-length victory took the heart out of the majority in a record crowd 120,139 and NBC's national audience. Birdstone is owned by socialite Marylou Whitney, who is a very big part of the Saratoga scene.
This was the day it was supposed to happen, a day racing would again embrace a Triple Crown winner. It had been too long, 1978 with Affirmed to be exact, and you couldn't have asked for a better hero than Smarty Jones. The "Philly Flash" looked like a lock to become racing's all-time leading money earner, needing only victory in the Belmont Stakes to force Visa to deliver on its $5 million bonus . But the grind of running three times in five weeks at three different racetracks at three different distances had taken its toll on Smarty Jones. And Zito, who had five seconds and a third in his previous 11 Belmont Stakes tries; who had a full deck for the Kentucky Derby reduced to a few wild cards, was now waiting in the wings with Birdstone and another shooter, Royal Assault, who won the Sir Barton at Pimlico on Preakness Day.
Smarty Jones, breaking from the far outside in post 9, was put into contention immediately by Elliott, who had been flawless aboard him through eight straight wins. He quickly wilted Purge, whom he had beaten twice at Oaklawn Park, who faded after a half-mile of :48 3/5. The next challenge came from Rock Hard Ten, the Preakness runner-up, whose antics forced the starters to blindfold him in order to load him into the gate. He stayed in the mix and was a length off Smarty Jones after a mile in 1:35 2/5. At this point, Smarty Jones looked to have found the Holy Grail, but he wasn't alone for long, as Birdstone swept to victory. "Smarty broke very sharp," Elliott said, "and I got a hold of him, but a couple of horses came up on his inside and just kind of had him on the run. "I thought that maybe, if he could get on the lead by himself, he'll relax, which he might have. But I had a horse on the inside, then one on the outside and a horse on the inside again. So, he never got a chance to relax. I just had to keep letting him out a little bit at a time, and it just took its toll on him."
Smarty Jones will now get a well-deserved rest and point toward race later in the year, most likely the Pennsylvania Derby on Labor Day back at his home base of Philadelphia Park. "He's not done," Servis said. "You'll be seeing plenty of him and hopefully, we'll get to race next year. And he'll go on and do some great things and he'll be noted as the great horse -like Spectacular Bid that didn't win the Triple Crown."
Winning jockey Edgar Prado said "I feel a little bad. Smarty Jones is still pretty good but [Birdstone] is bred for the distance. I was very comfortable all the way around." The win was Prado's second in the Belmont, both times denying a Triple Crown. He was aboard Sarava in 2002. Winning trainer Nick Zito said, "What can I say? It was one emotional thing. It's sad because Smarty is great for racing."