Smarty Jones was understandably the center of the racing world after the Kentucky Derby. The colt had captured America’s most famous race, improved his career record to a perfect 7 for 7, earned a $5 million bonus and transformed his little known owner, trainer and jockey into darlings of the media.
Amidst all of the acclaim for the winner, little attention was paid to the horses behind him. Yet one of the losers ran an extraordinary race, delivering a performance that was in many respects as impressive as Smarty Jones’s.
Imperialism, the third-place finisher at Churchill Downs, is capable of defeating Smarty Jones in the Preakness—if he gets the chance. Owner Steve Taub indicated that the colt might skip a trip to Baltimore and await the Belmont Stakes. Even Imperialism’s trainer, Kristin Mulhall, seems to be caught up in the Smarty Jones hype. Discussing the Preakness, she told the Daily Racing Form, “Honestly, I don’t think Smarty Jones is beatable.”
Imperialism received more attention before the Derby because his trainer is a 21-year-old woman than because of his own accomplishments, though he did bring solid credentials into the race. He had rallied from last place to win a pair of stakes at Santa Anita, and then was blocked in the stretch when he lost the Santa Anita Derby. Horses with his come-for-behind style are much more apt to encounter trouble than horses with the quickness of Smarty Jones, and Imperialism had trouble aplenty on Saturday. His difficulties were not visible in NBC’s coverage of the race, but handicappers can see everything that happened to him in Churchill Downs’ split-screen films.
A few strides out of the gate, jockey Kent Desormeaux momentarily found himself in heavy traffic, so he angled Imperialism to the rail and hoped for the best. Around the first turn he saved ground; on the backstretch he followed long shot Song of the Sword, who was getting a rail trip, and moved within about six lengths of the leaders—good striking position for a horse with his late kick. But Song of the Sword suddenly ran out of gas and started backing up, forcing Imperialism to back up behind him. Imperialism lost his momentum and dropped back two or three lengths; within a matter of seconds, he had lost any chance of winning.
Desormeaux extricated himself from the traffic on the rail, went four-wide around the turn and angled even wider when he turned into the stretch. He flew past The Cliff’s Edge, the morning line favorite, who is a formidable stretch-runner. As he moved into third place, he was the only horse gaining on Smarty Jones and runner-up Lion Heart.
“I went under the wire with a horse [who had] a ton of run left in him,” Desormeaux said after he dismounted. “The reason that happened was that all around the turn—for about 200 yards, I’d say—I was frozen in my position. [When I went outside] the horse cut it loose, but I’d given him too much to do.”
Imperialism finished just six lengths behind Smarty Jones, who benefited from a good trip. The sloppy Churchill Downs track was evidently speed-favoring, and the conditions surely helped the two leaders dominate the Derby from smart to finish. On a dry track, in a small field with fewer impediments for come-from-behind runners, Imperialism would have an excellent chance to reverse the Derby result. So why not try to do it at Pimlico on May 15?
“The Triple Crown is a brutal campaign and we don’t want to burn the horse out,” Taub said. “My original thought was that we’d pass the Preakness and go on to the Belmont. I think he’ll get 11/2 miles.”
It might seem logical, in theory, that a horse would benefit from a rest between the Derby and Belmont while his main rivals are knocking themselves out. And it might seem logical that a come-from-behind runner would prefer the Belmont’s longer distance to the Preakness’s 13/16 miles. But an abundance of evidence contradicts these assumptions.
The history of the Belmont shows clearly that horses benefit from a recent race to get them fit. Over the past three decades, 28 horses have gone directly from the Derby to the Belmont and only two have won. Moreover, horses with speed usually win the Belmont; runners who habitually come from far behind burn up bettors’ money every year. Aiming Imperialism for the Belmont is a classic money-losing proposition. The Preakness is his race.
Taub said Imperialism “came out of the Derby absolutely perfect.” In view of the colt’s robust condition, he said: “We have not closed the door [to the Preakness] by any means. The decision is Kristin’s.”
Her decision should be to run. Even though she is 21 and has a lifetime of training ahead of her, she may never again get such a good chance to win a Triple Crown event.