OK, I ADMIT it - I love the ponies. Not so much for the betting, but because I love the beauty and the majesty of racehorses. I believe that they are incredible animals with beauty, power and strength, and a competitiveness that rivals that of Michael Jordan and Pete Rose. Even in the face of debilitating injury, they will try to carry on and win.
Longtime racing fans will remember Tim Tam, who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 1958 but was seriously injured in the Belmont, still trying gamely to make it to the finish line. Even more tragically, the great filly Eight Belles, who finished second in the 2008 Kentucky Derby despite having broken both front ankles during the race. She continued to gallop on 200 yards past the finish line before she collapsed and had to be euthanized right there on the track. And lastly, War Emblem in 2002 showed us the heart these animals possess. War Emblem won the first two legs of the Triple Crown and a huge throng gathered at Belmont Park to see him make history. But as the gate opened, he stumbled and fell to one knee, falling way behind the rest of the pack. He could've cashed it in, but didn't quit, and using sprinter's speed, he made it all the way to second place, less than a head behind the leader at the 1-mile mark. The effort to catch up burned him out, and again racing was denied a Triple Crown winner.
I also admit I enjoy betting, but only on the Triple Crown. I enjoy going to the Turf Club on Market Street on the morning of the race and placing my bets, much to the delight of the regulars. As all of us know, the regulars are desperate for some inside tips and they assume, as governor and mayor, I must have had some, so they always ask me who I'm betting on. This happened again 2 weeks ago on Preakness day. When asked, I replied, "Shackleford." I had bet on Shackleford on the Derby, $10 across the board. He led all the way to the sixteenth pole and then began to fade. As he lost first place, I consoled myself that I would win place money. But then he slipped to third, then fourth, and even my show money disappeared. But for the Preakness, I figured he was a good bet because it is 1/16th of a mile shorter than the Derby. As they say, the rest is history, and several of those regulars must have thought I was a pretty smart dude.
In the last decade, Philadelphia has had a special connection with the Triple Crown. For 3 years in a row, a Philadelphia horse was the center of attention during the pursuit of the Triple Crown.
Who can forget the gallant Barbaro, who after winning the 2006 Derby, broke down in the Preakness and then fought courageously but futilely to survive at the new Bolton Center of the University of Pennsylvania Medical School. The nation fell in love with the horse's courage as well as the grace and caring shown by his owners, Gretchen and Roy Jackson.
The year before, Afleet Alex won both the Preakness and the Belmont after finishing third in the Derby. He trained at Delaware Park, but his five owners all hailed from our region, and three were from Northeast Philadelphia and went to Father Judge and Archbishop Ryan. Afleet Alex's owners also donated a portion of the horse's earnings to the great charity Alex's Lemonade Stand.
Of course, the penultimate Philadelphia horse was Smarty Jones in 2004. This small, reddish horse took the nation by storm, winning his first eight races. He trained out of Philadelphia Park, and when he won the Kentucky Derby, "Smartymania" swept the Delaware Valley. It increased to a fever pitch when he won the Preakness by 11 lengths, its largest margin of victory ever. Smarty's owners, Roy and Pat Chapman, invited Midge and I to sit with them to watch the race at Pimlico. Seeing Smarty pull away and destroy the field was breathtaking.
After the Preakness, Philadelphia, and for that matter the nation, went wild. Because of Smarty's name, schoolchildren across the country adopted him. When he was driven up to Belmont Park, thousands of people lined the route with signs urging him on. In the weeks leading up to the Belmont, everywhere I went people stopped me, and in a city desperately craving a champion, they all asked if we could have a parade when Smarty won the Belmont. But alas it was never to be. On race day, Belmont Park was awash with so many Philadelphians, it resembled a Phillies game at Nationals Park in D.C. Cheers of S-M-A-R-T-Y arose from every corner of the park. I was confident, having been assured by the Daily News' Dick Jerardi, the best horse racing writer in the country, that there was no way Smarty could lose. Little did Dick or any of us know what lay ahead.
Smarty was the victim of a conspiracy in which the jockeys for Rock Hard Ten and Eddington took turns engaging Smarty early on so he would burn himself out. As a result, Smarty set a blistering pace on the front end, going the first 10 furlongs faster than he did in winning the Derby, which is 1/4-mile shorter than the Belmont. Birdstone, who had a distance-favoring pedigree, rallied from well off the post and caught Smarty at the eighth pole. Smarty was burned out and could not rally, and as the race ended, the deafening roar gave way to a silence quieter than that during the moment of silence observed for President Reagan who passed away earlier that day.
I felt like I had been kicked in the stomach. A sense of grief came over me that would take weeks to dissipate. I've never felt worse about a sporting event, including the Eagles' losses in the NFC Championships and the undefeated 1971 Penn basketball team going down to Villanova in the NCAA Regional Final.
Smarty did a lot for our area. He gave us 7 weeks' worth of excitement and the belief that we finally had a Philadelphia champion. And in the end, he gave us something even more important. Because of Smarty's success, the need to save horse racing in Pennsylvania became apparent to our Legislature, and I signed our gaming bill a few weeks after Smarty's run. Because of expanded gaming at Pennsylvania's racetracks, horse racing, which was floundering on the brink of extinction, is healthy once again.
And most importantly, funds from gaming have totally eliminated school property taxes for more than 125,000 seniors and 300,000 more have seen them reduced by 50 percent or more. So Smarty's legacy, and the legacy of Barbaro and Afleet Alex, will never be forgotten. They are true Philadelphia heroes who returned the "Sport of Kings" to its rightful place.