Fans rally around Smarty
Associated Press - June 6, 2004

BENSALEM, Pa. -- Just when Philadelphia thought it had a long-awaited champion, Smarty Jones failed to bring home horse racing's most elusive prize.

The colt's fade in the homestretch Saturday could be considered another tale of Philly again choking in the clutch, or a heartwarming story about a horse that had little to prove after already winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Trainer John Servis was quick to point out that his only goal five months ago was qualifying for the Kentucky Derby, never mind a shot at the Triple Crown.

"I'm a Philadelphia sports fan myself," Servis said after the Belmont. "Our championship was the Kentucky Derby. If they can't accept that, they need to take this trip down the Triple Crown one more time and see where I'm coming from."

But it's easy to see where Philly's jaded sports fans are coming from. It's been 21 years since any of the city's pro sports teams won a championship -- the longest drought of any city with four major pro sports teams.

Villanova won the NCAA men's basketball title in 1985. And much like Smarty Jones, another SJ, tiny Saint Joseph's captivated college basketball with its stunning run to No. 1 in the polls. But just like Smarty, the Hawks' run ended without a title.

The plucky red chestnut colt carried more than jockey Stewart Elliott on his back. He lugged the title hopes of Philly fans who have suffered along with athletes through the championship drought.

Taking the first two legs of the Triple Crown gave Philly faithful hope that Smarty could be the first horse to win the Triple Crown in 27 years. There was talk of a parade, more magazine covers and more hoopla at tiny Philadelphia Park, where Team Smarty was based.

Instead, Smarty fans from around the area were as blue as the colt's silks when the championship hopes were dashed by long shot Birdstone in the final strides at Belmont Park

But, the fans who gathered at Philadelphia Park on Sunday to welcome Smarty home refused to believe the horse choked under pressure.

"No!" said Anne Orthner, of Hammonton, N.J. "The Triple Crown is way too elusive. We still have the Breeders' Cup and the Pennsylvania Derby. There's a lot of Smarty Jones yet to come."

Bob Romani, an Eagles season-ticket holder and partial season-ticket holder for the Phillies, said Smarty's loss was disappointing, but not comparable to the town's pro sports failures.

"It was just a good story because John Servis and everybody else represented the horse with class and did things the right way," said Romani, of Philadelphia. "It was great that he won the big two. To win the Triple Crown only would have been a bonus."

Some were more crestfallen.

"It's typical Philly luck," said Anthony Siegfried, of Bensalem, the northern suburb that claims to be the true home of Smarty Jones. "We come out with a great horse, Philly wants it and now look what happened. He still won more championships in a month than Philly did the last 10 years. You don't see us booing him."

The 76ers' last title, in 1983, ended a golden age in Philly sports during which the city teams won six championships in 23 years -- the Eagles in 1960, the Sixers in 1967 and '83, the Flyers in 1974 and '75, and the Phillies in 1980.

Since then, nothing.

Philly fans can rejoice that Smarty accomplished what Donovan McNabb or Allen Iverson can only hope to do -- bring home not just one, but two championships.

Still, the fans wanted the third.

Tears of joy turned to tears of sadness within seconds among the thousands of fans who jammed Philadelphia Park on Saturday to watch Smarty's bid. At the Belmont, the colt got a thunderous reception when he peeked out from under a tunnel that led from the paddock area to the track. Those throaty "Go Smarty!" yells were suddenly silenced as Birdstone crossed the finish line first.

There were no Carolina Panthers apologizing for their win in the NFC title game as Birdstone trainer Edgar Prado did after he was booed in the winner's circle.

"I heard when he came back and there were a lot of cheers for him, so that made me feel good," Servis said of Smarty's walk back to the barn. "For the American people, they wanted it so bad. What are you going to do? It's an unfortunate thing."

But generation after generation of Philly sports fans continue to root for their teams, win or lose, and the late-season collapse of the 1964 Phillies is probably more recalled than the team's 1980 World Series win.

Fans have only been on Smarty's bandwagon for about six weeks. And, there is no "Wait until next year." Smarty could easily be forgotten, just like Funny Cide, the gelding who's bid for a Triple Crown stalled last year at the Belmont who was grazing in near anonymity two barns away from Smarty at Belmont Park.

But it was quite a ride while it lasted for Philadelphia.

"Smarty won our hearts," said Melanie Schreffler, of Southampton, Pa. "He didn't have to do anything after the Derby.