Commentary

Ganging up on favorite isn't unimaginable at Belmont

Updated: June 4, 2008, 2:02 PM ET
By Pat Forde | ESPN.com

The idea is sinister. It's sporting sacrilege. But it's a question that needs to be asked.

Would someone actually enter the Belmont Stakes with the intention of making massive favorite Big Brown lose the Triple Crown rather than the intention of seeing his own horse win?

"If somebody did something like that," Big Brown trainer Rick Dutrow said, "they might get assassinated after the race."

No telling who might play the role of Jack Ruby in such an instance, but I wouldn't mess with the IEAH Stables outfit. The slicksters had their own security at both of the first two legs of the Triple Crown -- one off-putting aspect of the human connections to Big Brown.

"I just cannot imagine that anybody would go do something stupid just to keep us from winning the race," Dutrow continued.

I just cannot imagine that anybody would go do something stupid just to keep us from winning the race.

--Rick Dutrow

Dutrow might be right. Hopefully he is right -- it would be a disappointing display of pettiness for a trainer or jockey to devise a plan simply to sabotage a moment racing has waited 30 years to witness. The entire field should be racing to win -- no matter how incapable some of them might be.

But a gang-up scenario is hardly unimaginable. Some people believe it's happened many times before in this unforgiving sport, including in this very race.

Roy Chapman, owner of the last horse to arrive in New York with a shot to win the Triple Crown, Smarty Jones, went to his grave in 2006 convinced that Smarty's '04 Belmont defeat was a setup. He believed elite jockeys Jerry Bailey and Alex Solis engaged in suicidal tactics designed to make the big horse fail.

"I never saw two riders ride so hard to lose a race in my life," Chapman growled one week after his colt lost the Crown deep in the stretch to Birdstone. "They just were out for one thing: making sure Smarty didn't win."

What happened: Bailey, aboard Eddington, and Solis, aboard Rock Hard Ten, both made significant tactical departures with their horses. They hustled into the early pace to contentiously bracket Smarty Jones on the long Belmont backstretch. Solis positioned Rock Hard Ten to the inside of Smarty and Bailey rode Eddington up hard to Smarty's outside, refusing to let the speed-burning favorite settle and relax.

Bailey even used his whip on Eddington early in the grueling 1½-mile race, prompting Chapman to ask reporters, "How often do you use a stick on the backside?" Bailey's response at the time: "I tapped my horse on the shoulder. He's a lazy horse."

By the far turn, both Eddington and Rock Hard Ten had folded, on their way to finishing fourth and fifth, respectively. A few furlongs later, Smarty Jones folded as well, coming up empty in the stretch and finishing a dispiriting second.

I revisited the topic this week with Bailey, who now works as an analyst for ESPN. He said he watched the '04 Belmont recently in preparation for this race and remains convinced that he did not ride to take down Smarty Jones. (In 2004, Solis also denied sacrificing Rock Hard Ten simply to beat Smarty Jones.)

Nowhere is it written in the rules that if a horse is going for the Triple Crown, everyone should just let him do as he pleases.

--Mark Hennig

"It wasn't the case," Bailey said. "It's the same approach I took in every race I rode -- I try to win for my owners. Any favorite should be the main focus [of his competitors]. I rode Eddington kind of like [trainer] Mark Hennig wanted me to. He thought if I could get up and look Smarty Jones in the eye from the outside, it might be an advantage because he'd never really had that."

Hennig didn't see it the same way. He said this week that he doesn't think Bailey sacrificed Eddington to beat Smarty Jones -- but he also disapproved of the ride Bailey gave his horse. Hennig said this week that Bailey "rushed the horse" in what proved to be the Hall of Famer's last ride on Eddington. Hennig removed Bailey, turning Eddington's final nine career races over to Richard Migliore and then Eibar Coa.

Hennig said he didn't think Bailey's riding style fit Eddington's running style. But John Servis, who trained Smarty Jones, took it further this week.

He said that when Hennig needed a late rider replacement on Eddington for the Calder Derby later in '04, Bailey was available and in the jockeys' quarters at the time -- and still didn't get the call.

"That kind of sums it all up, doesn't it?" Servis asked.

Servis said he had a phone conversation with Bailey sometime after the Belmont, in which the two agreed to disagree.

"He felt like he was doing what was best for his horse to win," Servis recalled. "I told him I'd never seen him ride a horse that aggressively that early in the race. I wasn't happy about it at all."

Big Brown
Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty ImagesBig Brown had nobody around him at the end of the Preakness.
Dutrow watched that Belmont at home and thinks Smarty lost fair and square. But Rick The Mouth didn't stop there. He blamed Servis and jockey Stewart Elliott for doing a poor job with Smarty Jones leading up to the race.

Dutrow said Elliott pushed Smarty harder than he needed to in crushing the field in the Preakness -- and he was right about that. Dutrow also said Servis erred by giving Smarty his final pre-Belmont workout on "a sloppy, sealed track" at Philadelphia Park -- and he was dead wrong. The track was fast that day.

"He's inaccurate," Servis said of Dutrow. "I can appreciate the pressure he's under … and with pressure, he's going to say something he doesn't mean."

Dutrow said plenty more: "I think that the connections of Smarty Jones were not smart in order to get their job done for the Belmont. They should have played it a lot safer, a lot better. I do not see that everybody was after the horse in the race. I feel -- you know what, I do not feel that the jockeys and the trainers would care if another horse wins a Triple Crown. Why would they care? Why would they go out of their way to make themselves look, like, not so good in the racing game? You know, I just do not see it happening."

One more Triple Crown history lesson for Mr. Dutrow: the 1988 Preakness. Two weeks before that race, Winning Colors became just the third filly to win the Kentucky Derby with a wire-to-wire run, holding off Forty Niner in the stretch. At Pimlico, trainer Woody Stephens appeared to send Forty Niner on a seek-and-destroy mission aimed solely at the filly.

On that day, Dick Jerardi of the Philadelphia Daily News described Stephens' tactics as "a brawl … a vendetta … more like rodeo than racing." Winning Colors jockey Gary Stevens said Forty Niner jockey Pat Day roughly crowded the filly throughout the race, bumping her out into the middle of the track on the backstretch, leaving the rail wide open for eventual winner Risen Star. Forty Niner went on to finish seventh. Stevens told Jerardi that Day, a gentleman jockey, apologized to him in the shower.

Race fans were upset that the filly was beaten in the Preakness. But that was nothing compared to the unhappiness when Smarty was beaten. The dismay at Belmont Park was palpable, from announcer Tom Durkin's crestfallen call to the groans that rippled through the grandstand.

On the NBC telecast, Tom Hammond said shortly after the finish, "They ganged up on him. Everyone took a shot at him."

That's precisely what Dutrow and jockey Kent Desormeaux should be prepared for Saturday. Even if nobody goes out on a suicide mission, every trainer and jockey will be trying to find a way to make this the most difficult race of Big Brown's short career.

Dutrow already believes jockey Edgar Prado, aboard long shot Riley Tucker, attempted to pin Big Brown on the rail in the Preakness on May 17. He should expect more of those tactics, at the very least, this time around. Because everything his rivals have tried so far has failed.

Big Brown appears to have one advantage Smarty Jones lacked: a greater ability to relax and run stress-free at a high cruising speed until asked for more. The colt has appeared unflappable while dominating the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. So the same type of tactics Bailey and Solis tried in '04 might not work as well this time around.

But Dutrow, who has his detractors in the racing world, had best be prepared for his colt to face harassment at various points around the massive Belmont oval. What Hennig said of the '04 Belmont rings true four years later:

"Nowhere is it written in the rules that if a horse is going for the Triple Crown, everyone should just let him do as he pleases."

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.

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