EACH HORSE IN a race has a number on the saddlecloth. Each jockey wears the owner's silks. Sometimes, that number and those silks become a target; the bigger the stakes, the bigger the target.
In the final days before the 2004 Belmont Stakes, John Servis was not all that concerned about the readiness of Smarty Jones. The trainer knew his Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner was ready to run. He did express concern about the target that Smarty Jones had become, wondering aloud if some riders in the race might ride as much to beat Smarty Jones as to actually win the race.
Turned out Servis was prescient. Two riders in the race, Alex Solis and Jerry Bailey, took their horses out of their best running styles to challenge Smarty early in the race. Rock Hard Ten and Eddington tired badly from the challenge and finished far back. Smarty ran away from the challenge, but tired in the stretch to finish second to Birdstone, a colt that relaxed behind all the early battles and had just enough energy to win in the end.
Big Brown is the target in Saturday's Belmont Stakes. When asked if he was concerned about other jockeys trying to target Big Brown, trainer Rick Dutrow said: "I do not believe that anyone would do something like that because this is such a huge race. If somebody did something like that they might get assassinated after the race. I just can't imagine that anybody would go do something stupid just to keep us from winning the race.
"I'm under the impression that all of the trainers and jockeys are going into this race and they are going to try to do as good as they can and they're going to try to have their horse run as good as he can. I just don't see it or feel it that someone is going to go out of their way to do something wrong to Big Brown in the race. I can't imagine it."
Interestingly, after the Preakness, Dutrow said he wondered why jockey Edgar Prado seemed to take Riley Tucker out of his game in an attempt to put Big Brown in a tight spot on the first turn. Barely 2 weeks later, Dutrow could not imagine such a thing in the Belmont. And did not "see that everybody was after [Smarty] in the race."
A few days after that 2004 Belmont, Servis got a message from Bailey, the Hall of Fame jockey, now retired and a terrific racing analyst for ESPN and ABC, which will telecast Saturday's race.
"I called him back and we talked about it a little bit," Servis said. "He said his horse runs better on the outside and that's why he took him back and to the outside."
Bailey was maybe the smartest jockey who ever lived. Servis rode him. And won with him.
Servis told him: "I've never seen you go to the stick with that far to go. That's not Jerry Bailey."
That day, it was. Bailey never rode Eddington after that race. Which probably was not a coincidence.
Whatever you believe about the 2004 Belmont, the targeting of horses is not new. It has been around as long as horse racing. Twenty years ago, trainer Woody Stephens was so upset that, after gaining an uncontested lead, the Wayne Lukas-trained filly Winning Colors had won the Kentucky Derby over the fast-closing Stephens-trained Forty Niner that he ordered Pat Day to get into an all-out early duel with the filly in the Preakness.
Gary Stevens, another Hall of Fame rider and the lead analyst for NBC's racing telecasts, rode Winning Colors.
The feelings after that 1988 Preakness were very raw. Like Birdstone, Risen Star benefited from the duel between the filly and the colt, ran by them both and won the race.
"If I didn't push her, she was going to win," Woody Stephens said after the race. "What the hell am I going to do? Turn her loose again by 5 [lengths]."
Winning Colors ran on well to finish third. Forty Niner was seventh, the worst performance of a terrific career.
"I would just love for the whole nation to get to see the run down the backside on the head-on [shot]," Stevens said then. "I'm probably seven wide. I tried to take back off of him. She relaxed. [Day] slowed down with me. I moved away from him just to quit from bumping. She was getting knocked off stride. He slowed down and moved out to me again. By that time, Risen Star was sitting in the garden spot."
Turned out Risen Star was the best of the group as he proved by going on to dominate the Belmont Stakes.
"I probably got lucky with the trip that Risen Star got in the Derby," Stevens said last week. "He was probably the best horse that day."
Still, Stevens was not pleased with what went down that day. And has not forgotten what it felt like.
"If my horse was dead at any point in the race, I tried to stay out of everybody's way," Stevens said. "I hated being cost a race by a horse that didn't have a chance and I hated being in somebody's way and preventing the best horse from winning it if I had no chance."
Others, Stevens said, don't always think that way. It is, he knows, part of the game.
"If you're on a 3-5 shot in a five-horse field, you know you've got a target on you," Stevens said. "You know when you go out there the horses that are going to be contenders and the ones that are just going to be in the way. You try any way you can to beat them. That's the jockey's job."
So, could Big Brown be targeted? Sure. But it is less likely to matter. As he proved in the Preakness, Big Brown relaxes beautifully during his races, even if there is some outside pressure. Smarty was more headstrong. The colt simply wanted to go and when horses challenged him in the Belmont, Smarty just wanted to run them out of the race. He did that, but it might have eventually cost him the Triple Crown.
"The style is going to help Big Brown," Servis said.
"Big Brown can switch on and off," Stevens said. "I think that's why Kent [Desormeaux] is so confident."
Stevens shares that confidence.
"I love him," Stevens said.
Steve Cauthen, Affirmed's rider through the 1978 Triple Crown, really thought Smarty Jones would win the Belmont.
"I think that the other horses were able to just aggravate him enough early on, you know, it seems like a couple horses just pushed and pushed him enough to where, you know, when it came to that final furlong, you know, he ran out of steam," Cauthen said.
"It seems like Big Brown is more willing to relax and settle wherever Kent decides he needs to put him. And when you have that kind of turn of foot that he has you can wait and use it when you need it."
Big Brown has one other thing going for him that Smarty did not. By the Belmont, Smarty had been in hard training for 9 months. Big Brown's foot issues in January actually kept him out of training.
"I think it's a huge edge," Servis said. "He's a fairly fresh horse."
Servis was kind of surprised to see Prado putting early pressure on Big Brown in the Preakness.
"I know Edgar," Servis said. "Seems out of character for him. It really does."
Prado has ridden more than 250 winners for Dutrow over the years. He thought he was going to be riding Big Brown - until the colt's owners went for Desormeaux.
Prado rode Birdstone in that 2004 Belmont. He was the beneficiary of other riders targeting Smarty. On Saturday, Prado will be in the Belmont, riding Peter Pan Stakes winner Casino Drive, the only horse that appears to have a chance to beat Big Brown, assuming something unforeseen does not happen.
Prado might ride to beat Big Brown, but there isn't likely to be a sacrifice. Prado has to think he has a chance to win and likely will devise a strategy that gives him the best chance. Might be to run with Big Brown, stalk Big Brown or lead Big Brown. Prado will decide and in just under 150 seconds, we will all know who had what, when it was used and what it meant.
What: Belmont Stakes.
When: Saturday, 5 p.m., ABC.
Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.
Draw: Today, 11 o'clock on ESPNEWS.
At stake: The Belmont Stakes is the third leg of the Triple Crown. Big Brown has won the first two legs.