Smarty's retirement a hard pill to swallow

Jeremy feels the pain as another of horse racing's superstars calls it quits way too early.

Updated: August 3, 2004, 1:21 PM ET
By Jeremy Plonk | Special to ESPN.com

I can't stop cussing.

Despite a journalism degree and a resume that has seen me write nearly every day for the past 14 years, I cannot find decent or respectable words to describe the feeling in my gut.

And it's not a small gut, damn it. See, I can't stop cussing.

All this for a horse. But not any horse. This was Smarty Jones.

I spent nearly all of the afternoon and evening following Smarty Jones' retirement announcement grinding my teeth, holding back the next four-letter barrage that makes me wonder why in the world I love this game.

You want to blame. But can you possibly find fault with any of the amazing people surrounding the colt?

You want to know why. But can you possibly question what's right for the horse health-wise?

You want more. But you can't have it.

All you're left with is this feeling in your gut. Again, I'll refrain from describing it for fear of offending.

I know adults are supposed to grow out of this kind of thing. Idolizing of athletes rates as a child's past time. I scoff at the middle-aged men wearing No. 3 Allen Iverson jerseys around the mall. Get a life, you losers, I say.

And here I sit in an office littered with Smarty Jones paraphernalia, wondering what in the (expletive) happened to my mindset. Amongst my "Smarty Jones for President" bumper stickers, glossy photographs and even a single strand from his Preakness week hayrack, I can't help but wonder what consumed me.

Funny fella that Smarty Jones.

On the very same day that Saarland retired, so did Smarty Jones. However, I felt little connection to my "old horse" on this day. Some of you may recall the 2002 day-by-day ESPN.com diary I wrote with Saarland's connections - Saarland's Road to the Roses - where we chronicled the Kentucky Derby hopeful's every move for five months. When he was injured and finished 10th in the Kentucky Derby, I felt sadness. He was one of my own.

But that feeling weighed mere ounces compared to the heavy poundage my gut feels upon the early retirement of Smarty Jones. I truly hope another horse like this never comes along. Not to preserve my memory of the champion, but because I don't ever want this feeling to return. There's probably an Air Supply or Journey song that warns, "It's better to have lost in love than to have never loved at all." The last thing I need now is some (expletive) 1980s hair band telling me this feeling is a good thing.

As a Pennsylvanian, Smarty belongs to us. Take that, blue bloods, we all felt on Derby Day. I remember going absolutely berserk on the rooftop of Churchill Downs the first Saturday in May.

"Set 'em down, Stewie&Set 'em down, Stewie&Show 'em your tail, Smarty!," I screamed over and over each jump as jockey Stewart Elliott and Smarty Jones put away Lion Heart and drew clear.

(My left arm and leg were overcome with goosebumps as I typed that last sentence - more than three months after the he splashed home under the Twin Spires.)

With my program rolled up, I went to the right-handed stick about 75 times from the quarter pole to the wire. Each time, the program hit my right thigh in the same area. No kidding, it wore the ink off the program in that particular spot. It was an emotional journey down the lane. Truth is, I had to beg off a television appearance four days after the Derby because I was still hoarse from the excursion.

The Preakness was an entirely different story&no fear. It was not about winning, but rather a coronation in my mind. When the heart-warming colt pumped a lifeline of blood into the record Pimlico crowd, hairs stood on the back of my neck and arms. This time, there was no use of the whip. In fact, not even a shout. The Preakness proved to be a no-Sucrets zone. I knew I had just witnessed the most amazing horserace of my lifetime. When they turned for home, I remember once yelling, "Show 'em your ass, big boy", leaving refinement at the front door but backing off the need for any further obnoxiousness. It was simply a romp.

At the Belmont Stakes three weeks later, you could not have asked for a better setting. Working in the stats department with Kenny Mayne and the ESPN crew, I had an elevated platform above the finish line from which we could watch the action. Kenny called his emotions that day bigger than any Super Bowl he had ever covered. Just before we went on the air, he gave me a high-five that misdirected into a forearm bash and nearly severed me halfway between the wrist and elbow. Geeked up, the pain subsided. It was a locker-room adrenaline rush, I guess you would say.

But the race would prove less exhilarating. Down the backstretch, I turned to my brother-in-law and pointed out the quickening fractions. "Too soon&too soon, 23-and-change that quarter again," I said to him. Just as the world swelled to cheer Smarty's widening lead at the quarter pole, I had dead aim on Birdstone from midway on the far turn as he was gathering momentum. While I can recall every word I said down the lane of the Derby and Preakness, honestly I cannot stir memories of anything I mumbled or shouted in the Belmont Stakes' final 30 seconds. I just stared blankly as the light blue silks of Birdstone passed the royal blue of Smarty Jones. Blue was an appropriate color.

Admittedly, I was among those quick to blame the internal fractions of the race. Armchair quarterbacks tend to do such things. I fell guilty on all charges. My analysis remains that Stewart Elliott either moved Smarty Jones too soon, or Smarty Jones decided it was time to go too soon. Either way, it was too soon.

And now comes the retirement of Smarty Jones due to minor injuries.

Again, way too (expletive) soon.

In addition to being a longtime contributing writer to ESPN.com's Horse Racing section, Jeremy Plonk is the editor of The HorsePlayer Magazine.

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