Racing fever is high in New York and across the United States, as horse racing fans prepare for the Belmont Stakes Saturday. The race is the third leg of the fabled Triple Crown. Smarty Jones, the colt from Philadelphia, is given a real chance of becoming the first horse in over a quarter century to win the biggest prize in U.S. horse racing.
Record crowds are expected at New York's Belmont race track to watch Smarty Jones chase history. The three-year-old chestnut colt is trying to become the first horse in 26 years to win racing's Triple Crown. He has already sailed passed competitors in the first two legs of the Crown, the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. Smarty Jones' story has captured the public's imagination. The horse smashed his skull last year. He is owned by an elderly man in a wheelchair. His little-known jockey has a criminal record and his original trainer was murdered.
Smarty Jones' current trainer, John Servis, says people are rooting for his horse across the country.
"Nationwide, people fall in love with my horse," he said. "I think it is great for the industry. It is great for us."
The last horse to win all three races and claim the Crown was the horse called Affirmed in 1978. Since then, nine horses have won the first two races only to falter on the Belmont track. Bill Nader of the New York Racing Authority thinks Smarty Jones can end the drought, and become only the 12th horse in history to capture the Triple Crown.
"This horse has a legitimate chance to make history," he said.
The Belmont Stakes is a tough race because of its length, 2.4 kilometers, a stretch requiring speed and stamina.
Belmont Track announcer Tom Durkin has watched many dreams of Triple Crown glory evaporate on the Belmont's long track.
"That extra quarter mile is a lifetime in the life of a three-year old in the spring," he said. "So, I think it just underlines the fact that the Belmont is a very, very difficult race to win."
Last year, a New York-bred horse, Funny Cide, won the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, only to come in third on a wet track at Belmont. This year, weather forecasters are predicting showers. But wet conditions may give Smarty Jones an edge. He won the Kentucky Derby on a muddy track. Trainer John Servis, however, does not view the rain as an advantage.
"Everybody thought that the wet track helped him tremendously, but then he came back in the Preakness on a dry track and ran a lot better," he said. "So I do not think it is an advantage. It might be a disadvantage to some of the other horses that might not necessarily like an off track."
Smarty Jones was not bred for distance racing, but he is unbeaten in the eight races he has run. Even some competitors like veteran trainer Nick Zito are impressed.
"He has trounced everybody. He is eight for eight. He has a great record coming into it," he said. "He can run over any surface. He really looks the part. He looks like he just skips along. He is light on his feet."
Since the mid-1990s, the sponsor of the Triple Crown races, VISA USA, has been offering a $5 million prize to any horse that wins the Triple Crown. So far, there have been no takers. Smarty Jones may just be the horse to break the mold.