New York — Trainer Nick Zito stepped to the podium during the draw for the Belmont Stakes and all but conceded the race and Triple Crown to Smarty Jones.
"Where do I sign now for second?" he asked.
Settle for second?
"To Smarty Jones? Why not? There's nothing wrong being second to a hero," Zito said.
The undefeated Smarty Jones finally arrived at Belmont on Wednesday, just after the little red chestnut colt was made the 2-5 morning-line favorite to defeat eight rivals and give racing its 12th Triple Crown champion and first since Affirmed in 1978.
"He's doing great, and I'm sure he'll run well," trainer John Servis said.
The van ride from Philadelphia Park to Belmont, complete with police escort, took about two hours.
When the doors opened, Smarty Jones bounded off the van and was led to his stall in Barn 5, the same barn that housed 1973 Triple Crown winner Secretariat.
While the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner was settling in for Saturday's race, rival trainers were explaining why they decided to run their horses in the first place.
Bobby Frankel, who played Triple spoiler last year when Empire Maker beat Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide in the Belmont, reluctantly entered Master David, a 20-1 long shot. The trainer said jockey Jose Santos helped convince him Master David has a shot.
"He thinks he's got a chance. I don't, but he does," Frankel said. Smarty Jones "looks like 10 lengths the best. He seems like the perfect horse right now."
Master David was 12th in the Derby and third in his last start, the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont on May 22.
Todd Pletcher decided to give Purge a third shot at Smarty Jones. The son of Pulpit -- 3-for-3 in races without Smarty Jones in the field -- was the second choice at 5-1.
After losses to Smarty in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, Purge came back and won the Peter Pan by an impressive 63/4 lengths. That was enough to earn another chance.
However, Pletcher didn't sound optimistic.
"When you start trying to analyze the reasons that makes you want to run against Smarty Jones, it's very difficult to find a weakness there," Pletcher said.
The rest of the field includes Birdstone (15-1) and Royal Assault (20-1), both trained by Zito; Rock Hard Ten (8-1) and Eddington (10-1), second and third in the Preakness; and 50-1 long shots Caiman and Tap Dancer.
As if Smarty Jones needed an added advantage, the colt drew the outside No. 9 post, giving jockey Stewart Elliott a clear view to the first turn.
"I'm much happier with 9 than 1," Servis said as the draw came down to those two posts. "It will give us a nice run to the first turn. He can sit out there and get comfortable."
Zito is 0-for-11 in the Belmont, with five second-place finishes, most recently with A P Valentine in 2001. Even though he believes Smarty Jones will finally end a run that has seen five failed Triple tries in the past seven years, the New York-based trainer says his horses are legitimate contenders.
"I have two worthy horses," he said. "One won the Champagne (Birdstone), New York's best 2-year-old race and was eighth -- not 18th -- in the Derby. The other one (Royal Assault) can go the mile-and-a-half."
Servis, meanwhile, fears them all.
"I'm concerned about everybody," he said. "That's what makes horse racing so great."
Purge was first on his list, perhaps because the colt has now learned to run from off the pace. In Arkansas, Purge set the pace, and each time Smarty was able to blow past him in the stretch.
"Purge is a horse that learned to do what has made my horse what he is today," Servis said. "He's a very talented horse and now that he's learned to rate, I'm sure he's not the same horse I ran against in Arkansas."
Though Smarty beat Rock Hard Ten by a record 111/2 lengths in the Preakness, with Eddington two lengths farther back in third, Servis says both are ready to improve.
"They are both lightly raced horses, and you know they are going to improve off of every race," he said. "And with their pedigree I would think that they'd love a mile-and-a-half. You have to beat everybody, and anything can happen."
Smarty Jones is the shortest priced Belmont morning-line favorite since Spectacular Bid, who was 1-5 before finishing third in the 1979 Belmont in his failed Triple Crown bid.
Affirmed, the last Triple Crown winner in 1978, was also the last odds-on favorite to win the Belmont. Since then, five horses -- all with a chance to win the Triple Crown -- failed. Real Quiet was the most recent, finishing second by a nose in 1998 as the 4-5 choice.