By Dick Jerardi
When I got my Hall of Fame ballot a month ago, I was hardly surprised to see that Smarty Jones again was not a finalist. Nor was I surprised to see that Rags to Riches was again a finalist.
The argument against Smarty Jones is longevity – just nine races. It is not an unreasonable argument. So how then can one explain Rags to Riches as a finalist? She had just seven races.
When I wrote a letter to the Hall of Fame committee a few years ago nominating Smarty Jones, I said that I was: “a bit baffled as to how Rags to Riches has been a finalist in recent years and not Smarty Jones. Their accomplishments are not even close.’’
Smarty Jones was the first unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977, won the Preakness by the largest margin (11 1/2 lengths) in the history of the race, raced nine times from early November 2003 until early June 2004 without a break, had a four-race series of Beyer figures – Rebel Stakes, Arkansas Derby, Kentucky Derby, Preakness – 112, 109, 107, 118 – unmatched by a 3-year-old in the 21st century.
Rags to Riches raced seven times, six against fillies. She was fourth in her June 2006 debut, did not race again until the following January and then reeled off five consecutive wins – a maiden special weight and four Grade I stakes, the Las Virgenes, the Santa Anita Oaks, the Kentucky Oaks and the Belmont Stakes where she beat eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin by a head, a tremendous accomplishment where she earned a 107 Beyer, one of just two triple-digit Beyers. Her final race came in the September 2007 Grade I Gazelle when she finished second at 2-5. She had a terrific 2007, but nothing remotely like the year Smarty Jones had in 2004.
In 2004, Rock Hard Ten, Borrego, Eddington, Purge and Imperialism raced against Smarty Jones a combined 12 times. They finished a combined 147 lengths behind him, an average of 12 lengths per race. Smarty Jones did not just win his races; the colt dominated them. And he was crushing some very accomplished horses. In 2005, The Smarty Five won six Grade I races and four Grade II races. Rock Hard Ten won the Strub, Santa Anita Handicap and Goodwood. Borrego won the Pacific Classic and Jockey Club Gold Cup. Eddington won the Gulfstream Park Handicap and Pimlico Special.
Also in 2004, the winners of the Haskell, Jim Dandy and West Virginia Derby raced against Smarty Jones a combined six times and were beaten by a combined 78 lengths. Purge won all four of his races without Smarty Jones. In three tries against Smarty, Purge was a combined 47 lengths behind.
Other than Curlin, the horses Rags to Riches beat or beat her are unrecognizable. She was never dominant, her five wins by a combined 15 lengths.
Smarty Jones won his eight races by a combined 47 1/2 lengths. The Belmont Stakes was his ninth race at nine different distances at six race tracks. In his only loss, the Belmont Stakes, the colt was beaten by in-race circumstances much more than by winner Birdstone. In fact, it was somewhat similar to what happened to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah when he finished second in the 2015 Travers. Two horses were taken out of their normal running styles to try to get Smarty Jones beat. Those two, Eddington and Rock Hard Ten, were well beaten, but were a great aid in Birdstone’s victory. It is worth noting that after his Travers loss, American Pharoah raced once more, winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic with a 120 Beyer Figure.
There was justifiable criticism for how the retirement announcement was handled in the late summer of 2004. As the only writer who was there every morning in the weeks leading up to the Belmont Stakes and the weeks after the race, I made it a point to explain to the committee that this was not the same horse after the race as before. Most days, he could not even get into a gallop. Something clearly was wrong. Turned out the colt had significant cartilage loss that was going to prevent him from training or running again. That, however, was not known until several months after the retirement announcement.
Longevity obviously is an understandable issue for the committee. And nine races does not qualify as long no matter how you define it. But those nine races over seven months qualifies as one of the most incredible runs by any horse in the modern history of the sport.
I do understand why Smarty Jones has not been deemed worthy by the committee of being a finalist, but it would be interesting if he would make the final list and a larger electorate could consider his merits. But I remain upset by the continuing presence of Rags to Riches on the ballot when she has been rejected by that larger electorate year after year.