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Apr 30, 2004

RACING TODAY

By: JOHN PIESEN


Talk about mixed emotions. For one of the rare times, I am not spending
Derby Week at Louisville. Thanks to family issues. But tomorrow (Wednesday)
morning, although not in Louisville physically, I will be a major part of the
Derby tableau.At 9 a.m., I will pick up the phone and call the Churchill Downs racing office
 to officially enter the name of Smarty Jones for the Kentucky Derby.Yes, I know that I need not be Einstein to do this. All I will be required to
do is give the name (Smarty Jones), the rider (Stewart Elliott), and when they
 ask me if if the horse will race on Lasix, I will say yes.My job done, I will hang up, and return to my computer to read another zillion
 Derby stories, most of them about Smarty Jones. Then at 5 p.m., I will put on
 ESPN for the Derby draw, and hope that my horse doesn"t get the 20.Wait a second. I just had a thought. There are four grays in the Derby --
Imperialism, Tapit, Wimbledon and Pro Prado. A four-gray triple and super box?Wouldn"t it be great if Pro Prado, who may be the longest shot on the board,
actually gets a piece of the pie? It could happen. After all, he was beaten only
 five lengths by Smarty Jones in the Arkansas Derby, and he gets in at the expense
 of Eddington and/or Rock Hard Ten, both of whom would be single digits if they
got in.Assuming Rock Hard Ten does not get in, this means that three major speed horses
 expected for the Derby won"t be there. The other two are Value Plus and Sinister G.The defections of these horses changes the entire complexion of the race. No
longer will there be five or six speeds in the race. We are down to three:
 Lion Heart, Pollard"s Vision and Smarty Jones.Is it not possible that the Derby could be a three-speed number?Hey, anyone who has been following my twice-weekly columns in this space since
 January knows how much I love Smarty Jones. Now, the rest of the racing world
 has jumped on the back of the bus.Everyone is writing Smarty Jones. And it"s all the same stuff. The blue-collar
connections. The almost-fatal injury at 2. The funny name. Between now and Derby
 Day, I really want to read something that you and I haven"t known for months.From covering racing all these years, I know there is no such thing as a sure
 thing. I also know that, at some point in the Derby, Smarty Jones will make the
 top, and the joint will go nuts. I also know that they will be coming at him in
waves through the lane.For those scoring at home, I will have my Derby selections -- as well as my picks
for full cards at Churchill and Aqueduct -- available TOLL FREE at 1-888-612-2283Need I remind you that that it was not that long ago that I picked eight Derby
 winners in 11 years for the New York Post newspaper -- most of them at double
digits. And need I remind you that I went 5-for-7 in this space the last two
 Saturdays.In the meantime, the case for Smarty Jones gets stronger by the day.Consider:1) Smarty worked five-eighths in a bullet :58 over a sloppy Churchill track last
 Saturday. My esteemed colleague Steve Haskin called it the best Derby work he"s
 seen in years. From my vantage point in New Jersey, the work merely shows that
Smarty likes the racetrack. Not every horse does. Other than that, :58 is no big
 deal for Smarty. He did the same thing before the Rebel and the Arkansas Derby,
 but no one was paying attention. Well maybe, someone.2) If indeed Eddington and Rock Hard Ten don"t get in, that"s two less big-times
 horses whom Smarty has to beat.and, 3) The defections of several other speeds as noted above. With those horses
 out, Smarty can lay second or third -- right off Lion Heart -- and that"s where
 his people want him to be.The bottom line is that, unlike most handicappers, I do not consider the Derby as
 wide-open with no clear-cut favorite. I believe that Smarty Jones is a latter-day
 Seattle Slew, and he"ll prove it Saturday.But unlike Seattle Slew, who was odds-on, Smarty may be no better than second choice
 at about 6-1.P.S.: I hope the powerful HBO documentary Jockey, that premiered on Monday night,
gets a wide audience, and opens some eyes about what jockeys must endure to make a
 living. Before you boo or harass another jockey, you need to see this 90-minute
 piece.Naturally, I know the the three jockeys involved in the film very well. I wrote
reams of copy on Randy Romero and Shane Sellers for the Post and Form, and I watched
Chris Rozier get started at Oaklawn two years ago. I fact one day I arranged for
an interview with Rozier, the hot bug at the time, but he was busy filming this
piece for HBO.I should have realized what was up when he told me that he couldn"t afford a room
 at the time, and was sleeping in tack rooms.I"ve been a Romero fan for years.I remember an interview I did with Randy back in the summer of "88 in the Belmont
 jocks" room. At the time, Randy was the regular rider of two nice fillies --
Personal Ensign for the Phippses, and Sacahuista for D. Wayne.Normally, whem I ask a jockey or trainer to compare two horses, I"ll get a waffling
 answer. And that"s what I was epxecting when I asked Randy to compare the
two fillies."Not close," he said. "Personal Ensign is the better filly."Sellers, who was terrific in the HBO program, likewise has also been dead-honest
with me...on and off the racetrack.Every August, Sellers would spend evenings at a Saratoga bar with his best buddy,
Robby Albarado, and their wives, and Shane always would be invited up to the
bandstand to sing. And he was good! So good that he went on to start a second career
as a country-western singer.Another thing about Sellers. He is one helluva ballplayer. He always played third
on the jocks" softball team, and you couldn"t get one past him. He"s always been
 the best athlete among the jockeys.One night, in a charity game in Schenectady, I hit a shot over the bag. A sure
double. But Sellers made this ridiculous backhand stab and threw me out. He has never
 let me forget it.The main reasons Sellers appeared on the HBO show were to raise money for his buddy
 Romero, who needs a kidney transplant, and has no savings or insurance, and to lobby
 for an increase in the current outdated weights sytem.There"s no question -- or there should be no question -- that, in this day and age,
 the bottom weights have to be increased at least three pounds if not more.But that"s a column for another day.



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