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May 07, 2004

RACING TODAY

By: JOHN PIESEN


I"m surprised that no one has used the line, so I"ll use it: Smarty Jones clearly is the fastest thing out of Arkansas since Paula Jones. Hey, it says here that Smarty Jones is even faster than Samantha Jones! Incidentally, the name Jones was huge in Arkansas long before Smarty came along. (For more on Smarty Jones, see my March 23 column on this web site. Or see the current issue of Sports Illustrated. He"s on the cover.)There is Jerry Jones, a native son of Arkansas who has achieved a measure of celebrity as the owner of the Dallas Cowboys. There is Matt Jones, the gifted University of Arkansas QB who excels at winning seven-overtime football games, and there"s the Arkansas-based Larry Jones, the trainer of Island Sun, who made the Kentucky Oaks exacta at 16-1.Then there is the city of Jonesboro, a college town in Northeast Arkansas, and the site of one of the most important events in NFL history.You ask why.Well, boys and girls, let me tell you.Back in the "50s, the New York Football Giants were scheduled to play a pre-season game against arch-rival Cleveland in Little Rock. Searching for a practice site, they settled on the Jonesboro High School football field, two hours north.Early in the contest, the Giants" Kyle Rote, a rookie out of SMU who was being groomed as the team"s new running back, attempted a cutback on a sweep. He turned his ankle on a rock. The ankle never healed properly, and Rote wound up at wide receiver, where he enjoyed an Hall of Fame career.Who replaced Rote?A fellow out of USC named Frank Gifford, who, at the time, was being groomed to play cornerback.If not for Jonesboro, there never would have been a Frank Gifford. There never would have been a Kathie Lee Gifford, or Monday Nights with Frank, or a friendly airline stewardess."If Kyle doesn"t go down," says Gifford, "I would have spent my professional football career chasing Raymond Berry."Gifford did return the favor by naming his first-born Kyle.Back to Smarty Jones.The burning question now is: will Smarty win the Triple Crown? As I see it, the only thing that can stop Smarty from pulling it off is Smarty himself. The Preakness and Belmont will make six races in three months, and you have to wonder if -- somewhere along the line -- he poops out.That said, if Smarty holds up, and does win the Preakness (he"ll be 3-5 to do so), the Belmont would be the easiest race of all for him. Jockey Elliott simply would put Smarty on the lead, and he"ll gallop those poor suckers to death.Can you imagine the crowd response as SJ opens up double-digits through the lane?And, just think, as I pointed out in this space two months back, if Smarty pulls off the Triple, he will instantly become the No. 1 money-winning thoroughbred in history with about $15 million, or $5 million more than current record-holder Cigar.As Smarty was blowing away the field in the Derby, I felt my heart go out to the members of Team Smarty -- the owners, trainer, stable foreman, exercise rider and groom -- who worked their tails off to get this wonderful horse to this point. They all deserve the acclaim they"re getting.But there were doubts back then.Trainer Servis has admitted the reason he went to Arkansas in the first place was that he felt the competition there would be less salty. That shows that back in January, Servis wasn"t sure what he had. (Maybe the competition wasn"t all that easy. Servis took 14 horses to Arkansas, and -- besides Smarty -- won only one race).Then one evening I ran into a guy at a redneck bar on Central Avenue, a couple of furlongs from Oaklawn Park. The guy told me that he was Pete Van Trump, and that he was Smarty Jones" gallop boy. At first, I was disbelieving because he looked (at about 175 pounds) much too big to be a gallop boy.But I believed him, and, before he left to hang with a pretty blonde from the Bernie Flint barn, he told me that "Smarty is a good horse, but I don"t know know how far he"ll go."I guess we found out.Again, incidentally, Van Trump later told me a great story.It seems that, years back, he went to Nick Zito"s barn in New York, looking for work as a gallop boy."Son," Zito told Pete, "...thanks, but we don"t train elephants here."I"m sorry that I missed Louisville, but I"ll be in Baltimore for the Preakness. In the meantime, I"ll be making some trips down to Philly Park the next few days to see Team Smarty, and next Wednesday, I will do my duty and call in Smarty"s entry for the Preakness."Why change a thing now?", says trainer Servis.Some background on how a media guy happens to enter a horse for a race. I had never done it, and I don"t know of anyone in my business who has done it.On one sunny Arkansas morning back in February, I was at my customary spot at Smarty"s barn when it came time for Servis to make the entry for the Southwest.Servis fumbled around in his pockets looking for his cell phone, but couldn"t find it. "Here, John, use mine," I said."Thanks, John, but you have the phone. Why don"t you go ahead and call it in?"Done deal.Instantly, I was a good luck charm -- or a "stable mascot" as colleague Ray Kerrison described me in last Sunday"s New York Post. I then went on to call in Smarty"s entry for the Rebel, for the Arkansas Derby, and last Wednesday -- from my living room in central Jersey -- the Kentucky Derby."You"re becoming a legend," colleague Steve Haskin told me this morning. "I don"t think so," I replied, while mentally calculating one per cent of five million.Speaking of high finance, I was delighted to give out the $65 cold Derby exacta to the good folks who called my office at 1-888-612-2283. And, hopefully, I"ll get lucky again in the Preakness, although there"s not much doubt who I"ll have on top. If you looked at the Derby selections at various publications, you would think that the Derby exacta was kind of light. After all, in the Daily Racing Form for example, I couldn"t find a single selector who picked Smarty, and not many who picked him 1-2-3-4. For that matter, several Form writers ridiculed Smarty up to Derby Day. Now, of course, they are all praising him as the greatest thing since the exacta box.One reason why the Derby exacta came back light has to be Michael Tabor.Tabor, the principal owner of Lion Heart, is one of the biggest high-rollers in the game. This explains why Lion Heart dropped from 8-1 to 5-1 in the last 10 minutes. In all my years, I have never seen a Derby contender drop three points like that. It had to be Tabor. Moreover, Patrick Biancone, Lion Heart"s trainer, last week told Servis that he and Servis will be the Derby exacta. Do you think that Tabor just may have nailed that exacta?And, speaking of Tabor, he has Lion Tamer in the Westchester Handicap, tomorrow"s opening-day feature at Belmont Park. LT will be 6-5, and I wouldn"t want to bet against him.P.S.: See you Friday with the weekend stakes picks.



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