‘A Tough Ask’: Elliott Recalls Smarty Jones’ Belmont Bid

Nobody could see Justify losing the Preakness yesterday.

Turns out, nobody could see him winning, either.

It was Erroll Garner weather at Pimlico Saturday, as The Man Upstairs stole a page from the jazz composer and piano legend’s songbook and unfurled “Misty,” festooning Old Hilltop in a fountain of fog.

But Justify did his thing anyway, winning by a half-length on a sloppy track and remaining unbeaten in five races. He is now poised to become the 13th Triple Crown winner in history. All the big red colt has to do is win the mile and a half Belmont Stakes on June 9.

Easier said than done. Take it from Stewart Elliott, who was 35 cents on the dollar to win the Belmont in 2004 aboard Smarty Jones after capturing the Kentucky Derby by nearly three lengths and the Preakness by 11 ½.

Smarty Jones was the biggest Belmont favorite since Spectacular Bid and Secretariat in the 1970s. Pressured inside and outside early on by Rock Hard Ten and Eddington, Smarty Jones failed in deep stretch, losing by a length to 36-1 outsider Birdstone. It was the second-toughest beat in Triple Crown history, behind only Real Quiet’s scant nose loss to Victory Gallop in 1998, a defeat that stings its connections to this day.

“Trying to win the Belmont and sweep the Triple Crown is a tough deal,” said Elliott, a 53-year-old native of Toronto. “We saw how good Justify was in winning the Derby, and yesterday, it was a bit of a struggle. Maybe he got a little tired, and now he’s going right back into a mile and a half. That’s a tough ask.”

No tougher on the horse than it is for the rider, however, in the opinion of Elliott, a consummate gentleman in addition to being an accomplished horseman who is enjoying a successful tour at Santa Anita with agent Carolyn Conley.

Not for the horse, but for its human affiliates, it’s the anticipation, the lull before the storm, that creates an air of restlessness.

“It gets to the point where you just want to put the horse in the gate and go,” Elliott said. “Just do it and get it over with. That’s how I felt. Eventually, I just wanted to get it done.”

But patience is a virtue, and the world will have to wait three weeks before getting its 2018 Triple Crown answer, yea or nay.

Hopefully, it will be clear and fast when “New York, New York” is rendered by Frank Sinatra before the 150th Belmont Stakes, and the classic can be viewed unfettered.

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