Downs jockeys reflect on historic run
When Kelly Bridges rode horses on tracks up and down the East Coast more than a decade ago, he raced with Stewart Elliott, an obscure jockey at the time whose name may soon be forever etched in racing history.
Elliott is the jockey for Smarty Jones, a thoroughbred that's heavily favored to become the first horse in the past 26 years to garner the Triple Crown since Affirmed, who accomplished the feat in 1978.
Dating back to 1919, the drought between Triple Crown winners has never been longer, and Smarty appears poised to end the dubious streak, favored by odds makers at 2-5 to win at Belmont.
"Stewart will ride a smart race," said Bridges, a successful second-year jockey at Yavapai Downs and Turf Paradise in Phoenix who's been riding thoroughbreds a total of 17 years. "It's great to see a small-time jock make it (this far). He's a good rider."
Smarty's trainer, John Servis, has also risen from obscurity to fame with his well-respected treatment of the animal. Yavapai Downs jockey Jocelyne Martin said Servis has benefited most from maintaining the same training schedule for the horse.
"I like the horse's chances a lot (to win the Triple Crown)," Bridges said. "The trainer's done an excellent job of keeping him out of races when he's been injured."
The 34-year-old Bridges, who relocated to the Southwest shortly after breaking his back in two places in New York 13 years ago, now competes in warmer and drier climates to alleviate the pain brought on by humid weather.
He once rode on the Belmont track, which is 1-1/2 miles in length and known for its large, sweeping turns.
Janna Sorrells, a Yavapai Downs jockey in her sixth year of competition, would love to see an underdog horse succeed.
"With Smarty Jones being a nobody horse and Servis a nobody trainer, that makes a lot of difference," Sorrells said. "Of course we want to see him win."
SHOT IN THE ARM
Bridges, Martin and Sorrells agree that the sport of horse racing needs a shot in the arm, and that Smarty Jones can provide the right medicine to cure what ails it.
With a Belmont victory, Smarty Jones would likely boost sales of promotional T-shirts, increase the overall number of horse stalls and gain additional publicity from TV and print media.
Martin, currently competing in her second stint at Yavapai Downs, said it's thrilling to have Smarty Jones in the running for the Triple Crown. Attendance and enthusiasm at live races around the United States could pick up depending on today's result.
"The whole industry needs this really bad, and this is a huge factor in getting the ball rolling again," she said. "Popularity has fallen off to some degree because of Indian casinos and off-track betting."
Horse racing has indeed witnessed a rapid decline in attendance at tracks across the nation over the past 20 years due to a rise in off-track betting and the lure of other sports, such as baseball and NASCAR.
"The sport has taken a beating," Bridges said. "It was definitely a spectator sport in the 1940s and '50s. But when TV came around, horse racing took a backseat."
Sorrells believes attendance at off-track betting sites and the general public's lack of horse racing knowledge has contributed to the downfall.
ROLL THE DICE
The racing community offers a couple of simple hypotheses as to why there's been no Triple Crown winner since the late 1970s.
One of the primary explanations remains the injuries suffered to the horses themselves. Bridges said it takes a superbly conditioned horse to claim all three of the Triple Crown races.
"Breeding has gotten better, but we have a lot of fine-boned animals now, and trainers are hard on them," Bridges said. "Horses were more big boned in the past."
Martin disagreed with that assessment, saying that genetics and the methods employed to manage a horse are what's most important.
Smarty Jones is the great, great grandson of Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner that's considered one of the finest racehorses ever bred.
"Smarty Joneses are few and far between," said Martin, who took last summer off due to a broken neck but has been racing thoroughbreds for about four years. "You can breed for 100 years and not get one. No one would've ever predicted him to race like that."
Sorrells said there's not enough horses in the industry and that trainers rush horses into service too soon.
"Everybody's looking at the big horse," she said. "We race 2-year-olds too early and they don't last as long. They're training them before they're 2 and they break down a lot quicker. You've got to have a strong horse."
To attract more spectators to the grand stands, several East Coast tracks have resorted to legalized gambling via slot machines. They also offer beefier promotions with free products to help fill the seats.
"A lot of tracks don't do promotions, and it's underrated," Sorrells said.
Horse racing facilities in Arizona, Washington and Oregon have suffered without slot machines in them. And Martin said that nothing will be gained if tracks don't work to better promote their live races with special attractions, such as $2 win tickets.
"The purses are such that the tracks in these states can't afford to get a Smarty Jones here," Martin said.
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