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September 19, 2014

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Columnist Ralph Siraco: Smarty Jones fans cry foul in Belmont defeat

Ralph Siraco's horse racing column appears Monday and his Southern California selections run Tuesday-Sunday.

It has been more than a week since Smarty Jones lost the Triple Crown.

His heartbreaking loss in the Belmont Stakes on June 5 still burns fresh in the minds of those who believe that the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner was ganged up on by a team of challengers who had only "Beat Smarty Jones" as their collective goal, rather than a legitimate upset.

This Triple Crown loss is different from those of the recent past. When Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet the following year and Charismatic in 1999 failed in their Triple Crown bids, there was only a resignation to the difficulty of the task.

After War Emblem's stumble and loss in 2002 and Funny Cide's defeat in the mud last year, more frustration built as to when there would be another Triple Crown winner.

But when Smarty Jones was denied the coveted achievement, there was plenty of blame to go around -- most of which did not focus on Smarty Jones or his connections. Very few cast a wary eye toward trainer John Servis or jockey Stewart Elliott in Smarty's first career loss.

After reviewing the videotape, the major outcry has focused on allegedly unfair tactics employed in the race. And the emotional feedback tells the real tale of Smarty Jones.

The little horse that could has captured the imagination of the masses beyond just a horse race. Smarty Jones is more than just a horse. He has become --through his Triple Crown tribulations -- an American hero, even if he didn't win the Triple Crown.

Smarty's legion of fans are taking it personally. The passionate response to his defeat has been overwhelming.

In Sunday's Daily Racing Form there were a pile of letters to the editor about the Belmont Stakes and how it was run. Readers of "America's Turf Authority" vented their disdain for how two particular riders employed unusual tactics in the race. And the guy catching most of the heat was the nation's top jockey, Jerry Bailey.

The controversy centers on the early challenges to Smarty Jones in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont. With more than a mile to go in the marathon race, Bailey, aboard Eddington, and jockey Alex Solis, atop Rock Hard Ten, appeared to have prematurely moved their horses in an attempt to double up on Smarty Jones.

As soon as Purge started to fade, Rock Hard Ten and Eddington pushed to engage Smarty Jones rather than stalk him until the stretch run, putting pressure on Smarty and compromising their mounts in that pursuit.

Steve Waxman of Versailles, Ky., has been a racing fan for 45 years. The thoroughbred owner and breeder wrote that Bailey's ride was one of "not trying to win." He wrote that Elliott and Edgar Prado, who rode winner Birdstone, were probably the only two riders in the race riding to win. He concluded his letter by suggesting Bailey apologize to the Smarty Jones team.

Bill Brown of Philadelphia wrote that he watched the video replay of the Belmont Stakes five times, and is firmly convinced that Bailey and Solis had extremely "questionable rides."

Watching Bailey attempt to move five-wide aboard Eddington with a mile to go, he wrote, "left me incredulous ... indicating to me that (Bailey) was more interested in trying to get Smarty Jones beaten than to win the race himself."

Peter Thompson of Wellington, Fla., asked why Bailey would not sit behind the contested pace, but instead eliminated any chance his horse had of winning by pressing early.

And Mike Iammarino of Surprise, Ariz., wrote, "I have been a jockey for 17 years and have always had a lot of respect for Jerry Bailey. His ride in the Belmont Stakes, however, on a live contender, was a disgrace to horse racing. Bailey sacrificed himself only to beat Smarty Jones and jockey Stewart Elliott."

Premature moves by any rider in a race are not illegal. Nor is ganging up on a prohibitive favorite. Although it may not be fair, and certainly compromises whatever chances an individual horse may have to upset, an undefeated horse going for the coveted Triple Crown has an indelible target on its back.

The Sunday editions of the Daily Racing Form hit the newsstands by Saturday evening. Inexplicably, Bailey took off his riding assignments for Sunday's races at Belmont Park. Hell has no wrath like a burnt Smarty Jones fan.

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