I always felt cheated as a younger racing fan. My family had told me the stories of racing legends, horses like Seattle Slew, Citation, Spectacular Bid and Secretariat. I was fascinated by their narratives, and found myself researching these champion’s race records and accomplishments. These tales of yesteryear played an important role in my becoming a fan of horse racing, but at the same time I never thought it was fair that I didn’t get to see these athletes in my lifetime.
Every other sport had the all-time greats of the past as well, but I was able to watch guys like Tom Brady and Peyton Manning stamp their tickets to football immortality in real time. I may have missed out on Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Wilt Chamberlain, but I have witnessed the greatness of Michael Jordan throughout his historic career and watched the meteoric rise of LeBron James to stardom. I found those athletes and their special performances on the biggest stages to be one of the greatest things about sports. But where had horse racing’s superstars gone? Why were there no longer equine athletes who captivated the national audience?
I had been a casual fan of the horse racing as a child, often taking trips to Delaware Park with my family members, but I wasn’t truly hooked on racing until the 2004 Triple Crown series that featured Philadelphia’s own Smarty Jones. I’m not claiming that Smarty is the best I have seen, horses like Ghostzapper, Cigar, and Point Given, just to name a few, are undoubtedly better in my opinion, but Smarty’s storm to the forefront of national attention in the spring of 2004 gave me my first glimpse into how special this sport can be.
Following Smarty’s run through the Triple Crown was great for me on so many levels. Just a year prior, the plucky New York-bred Funny Cide had been denied the Triple Crown in the final leg, the Belmont Stakes (G1). I remember how exciting it was to have a chance to witness a run at racing history, to have a horse attempt to accomplish something that hadn’t been done in 25 years. I would have given anything to get another chance to see a Triple Crown, and Smarty gave not only me, but also everyone else that chance in 2004.
As a native of the suburbs of Philadelphia, I found myself that much more thrilled by the hometown horse becoming the superstar and media darling. The buzz Smarty’s performances in the Kentucky Derby (G1) and Preakness Stakes (G1) created in the area was tremendous. Never before had I seen a horse get front-page coverage on newspapers and magazines, even donning the cover of Sports Illustrated before his try in the Belmont.
I can still picture the running of the 2004 Belmont Stakes (G1) in my head. More than 120,000 people crammed into Belmont Park, Smarty taking the lead around the far turn, track announcer Tom Durkin’s voice growing ever louder as he turned into the stretch. The stretch run of that race only takes about 27 seconds, but the gauntlet of emotions that ran through me made it seem like an eternity.
The race ended in disappointment with Smarty losing to 36-1 longshot Birdstone right at the wire, but I still get goose bumps thinking about how I felt watching that race. As agonizing a defeat it was, I had finally seen the great moment that hooked me for life as a fan of the sport, and had witnessed a legend that I could share with others. Eight years later, I’m still hooked, still eager to see that next legendary horse or moment that takes me on that same roller coaster of emotions. The search continues …