Triple Crown: Smarty Jones, Real Quiet

Smarty Jones is generally the first horse that springs to most minds when it comes to recent near misses at the Belmont Stakes. Perhaps no horse since 1978 has captured the public’s imagination as strongly as the little colt from Pennsylvania. Smarty’s road to the Kentucky Derby was a strange one. His original trainer was murdered by his own stepson the year Smarty was born. Then, as a 2-year-old, he was spooked when being trained for the starting gate and reared up, smashing his head against the roof…

33 Years of Heartbreak: The 12 Most Excruciating Near-Misses in the U.S. Thoroughbred Triple Crown Since 1978 – Part Six

2. Smarty Jones (2004)

knocking himself out cold, and fracturing his skull. The horse fully recovered, though, and once he got the hang of the racing business, he was unstoppable. Entering the Derby, Smarty Jones had only run in six races, but won them all. Even still, bettors were unsure what to make of him and made him co-favorites with The Cliff’s Edge at 4-1. On a muddy track, Smarty caught Lion Heart in the last furlong and went on to win by 2 ¾ lengths.

Now 7-0-0, Smarty Jones was the 8-5 Favorite to win the Preakness. Derby co-favorite The Cliff’s Edge was scratched due to a hoof injury, so Lion Heart was expected to carry a possible upset. Smarty Jones and jockey Stewart Elliott was up to the task, however. Allowing Lion Heart to set the pace, Smarty set up just behind and inside the leader, not allowing Lion Heart to drift over to a prime rail position. Upon reaching the final turn, Smarty burst from the pack and took the lead. While Lion Heart and other rival Rock Hard Ten gamely tried to make a race of it, Smarty systematically mauled the field, winning, as announcer Tom Durkin shouted, “by a colossal margin”. In fact, Smarty had won by 11 ½ lengths, still a Preakness record.

His rocky childhood, unbeaten record, and thrashing of the Preakness field made Smarty Jones one of the most widely-popular thoroughbreds in decades. Triple Crown chatter rose to a fever pitch and over 120,000 fans packed Belmont Park to watch the “Philly Flash” race against history, shattering the previous mark of 103,000 in 2002. The 2004 Belmont attendance remains the current record for any sporting event ever held in the state of New York. On the morning of the race, Smarty Jones was a heavy favorite at 2-5 odds, the largest odds margin since Spectacular Bid in 1979. He broke well from the gate and ran strongly, fighting off surges by both Purge and Preakness third-place finisher Rock Hard Ten. As the field turned for home and Smarty burst into the lead, the mammoth grandstand crowd erupted into bedlam. Smarty’s lead widened to a length, then two. A win seemed certain, but the Belmont’s deceptively long homestretch finally rose up to stop Smarty’s Triple Crown bid.

The 36-1 longshot Birdstone refused to fall back, staying within two lengths of the surging champion. After an eighth-place finish in the Derby and sitting out the Preakness, Birdstone was fresh and now motored down the stretch, hot on the heels of the tiring frontrunner. The Philly Flash held off Birdstone stride upon stride, but the Belmont track, a quarter mile longer than the Preakness, was too much for the champion to overcome. With only yards to go before the finish, Birdstone finally overtook Smarty and won by a length, to the devastated wails of the crowd and the heartbreak of millions watching from home. Smarty Jones never raced again, retired that August due to ankle bone bruising.

1. Real Quiet (1998)

As heartbreaking as Smarty Jones’ run for the Triple Crown was, not even his polarization of the horse racing world was enough to garner the #1 spot on this list. That “honor” goes to Real Quiet. The crooked-legged colt, sold for only $17,000 as a foal, turned some heads with his speed as a two-year-old, but was fifth choice in a 15-horse field when he arrived at the 1998 Derby. At odds of 8-1, Real Quiet hung back in the pack until the start of the final turn, making his move with favorite Indian Charlie right behind him. Frontrunner Old Trieste was passed by as Real Quiet and Indian Charlie vied for the lead. A late surge by Victory Gallop, who at one point had been racing last, was too little too late and Real Quiet outlasted the field to win.

Oddsmakers, impressed by his Derby win, made Real Quiet the 2-1 favorite at the Preakness, with Victory Gallop, the Derby runner-up, as second choice at 5-2. The Preakness turned into an eerie copy of the Derby. Forced to swing four horses wide around the final turn, Real Quiet still managed to leave every horse in his wake…except Victory Gallop. The two horses once again charged for home neck-and-neck and, just as in the Derby, Victory Gallop could not keep up, falling to second as Real Quiet won by 2 ½ lengths.

Speculation reached a fever pitch leading up to the Belmont, as many believed that Real Quiet had main rival Victory Gallop’s number. In the Belmont, the Florida-born colt was able to run his usual race, dropping into a spot several lengths behind the leader and biding his time. At the top of the final turn, the colt took off from an outside position and made his way up the field. Unlike the Derby and the Preakness, however, Real Quiet tore down the head of the homestretch all alone. To the roar of the New York crowd, Real Quiet had actually increased his lead a furlong later, turning the race into a runaway and making a Triple Crown win nearly a foregone conclusion.

But Victory Gallop was lying in wait. Suddenly, the Derby and Preakness runner-up bolted from the pack and steadily gained ground on Real Quiet. As the lead decreased from three lengths to two to one, the wire was only yards away. Victory Gallop darted to the outside and drew alongside Real Quiet, the champion holding on to his lead for dear life. The two crossed the wire in a photo finish, too close to call for the tens of thousands in attendance. The crowd held their breath in anticipation of the Belmont stewards’ photo examination. Minutes later, the official numbers flashed up on the result boards and the crowd wailed in crestfallen disappointment. Victory Gallop had won. His last stride had brought him just in front and Real Quiet’s brave struggle to maintain the lead had fallen short in the final second. Fallen short by, literally, two inches.