Can Birdstone Become an Old Friend?

One of the highlights of this year’s virtual Secretariat Festival will be Michael Blowen taking you on an online guided tour of Old Friends Thoroughbred Retirement Farm in Georgetown, Kentucky. The newest arrival he will introduce you to is the 2004 Belmont, Travers, and Champagne winner Birdstone. If the smallish son of Grindstone is ever going to get the love he so richly deserves it is here, where Blowen can showcase the horse as only he can. Birdstone, you see, has been one of the most maligned horses of recent years since that fateful day at Belmont Park when he sent the majority of Belmont’s record crowd home in tears and despair by denying America’s hero Smarty Jones the Triple Crown sweep most everyone had come to witness. Before you link into this free extraordinary event to be live-streamed on the Secretariat Festival Facebook page Oct. 11, here is your opportunity to read the behind the scenes story of an “Old Friend” you really never got to know. ~ Steve Haskin

Can Birdstone Become an Old Friend?

By Steve Haskin


It is appropriate in some strange convoluted way that Birdstone is now at Old Friends Thoroughbred Farm in Lexington. The truth is, the little horse with the big heart doesn’t have many old friends. But it is hoped after being placed in the care of the irrepressible and energetic Michael Blowen he will soon have his share of new friends.

This is a horse who, despite winning three of the most prestigious and historic stakes in America, has never been embraced by racing fans. The reason is simple. He is best remembered as being the horse who brought 120,000 screaming fans to a stunned silence in about 10 agonizing seconds. He is the horse who turned tears of joy into tears of sadness. He is the horse who, 16 years later, still will not allow the vast majority of racing fans to watch a replay of the 2004 Belmont Stakes. He is the horse who sent NYRA track announcer Tom Durkin’s voice plummeting after reaching a resounding crescendo.

You can still hear the hope and excitement in Durkin’s voice as the field turned into the stretch with America’s darling Smarty Jones bounding along with a four-length lead; Triple Crown history a mere quarter of a mile away. A ticker tape parade through the streets of Philadelphia awaited the horse. Street Road, the main road in the town of Bensalem, where Smarty Jones resided at Philadelphia Park, was about to be renamed Smarty Jones Boulevard.

“And Smarty Jones enters the stretch to the roar of 120,000,” Durkin bellowed. Everyone was on their feet, shouting and fist pumping; some already hugging, even Pennsylvania Governor Ed Rendell. But then Durkin caught a glimpse of Marylou Whitney’s powder blue silks entering the picture and his voice changed. “But Birdstone is going to make him earn it today. The whip is out on Smarty Jones. It’s been 26 years. It’s just one furlong away.” Durkin’s voice was almost pleading with Smarty Jones to find more.

But the experienced Durkin could already feel the dream unraveling. “I was pumped, but you could tell from the sound of my voice that Birdstone was coming on,” he recalled years later.

“Birdstone is an outside threat. They’re coming down to the finish. Can Smarty Jones hold on? Here comes Birdstone. Birdstone surges past.” And then Durkin’s voice went somber. “Birdstone … wins … the … Belmont … Stakes” — the last three words dropping as if it had been pushed off a cliff.

It was the first time in history that the owner of a classic winner actually felt badly and was unable to rejoice in the victory, even a little. Mrs. Whitney was near tears, not for her victory, but for depriving Smarty his chance for immortality and for what a victory would have done for the sport. “I feel so awful for Smarty Jones,” she said. “We were hoping we’d be second. I love Smarty. He’s done more for racing than anyone I’ve ever known.”

When congratulated on his victory, all Marylou’s husband John Hendrickson could say was, “No, that was bad.”

And then there were the comments on my old Twitter page:

“I can’t think of a more heartbreaking defeat than Smarty Jones in the Belmont. Still unwatchable 14 years later.”

“I can honestly say I have never felt so empty after a race than I did that day. I wanted him to win so bad as an undefeated champion.”

“It broke my heart that he lost the Belmont, I’ll never forget the largest crowd in history suddenly silenced. And the little girl next to me who I comforted when she broke out in tears.”

“Brutal. Still can’t watch that race.”

“It was following Smarty that got me into horse racing – still love him so much!! That Belmont about killed me!! Talk about crying my eyes out!!!”

“That Belmont run still breaks my heart. I cried so hard that day.”

“It was so eerie… thousands screaming and then… silence.”

“It was like a balloon got suddenly deflated. The roar of that Belmont crowd becoming still as he got passed….you could physically feel it.”

“His story was so compelling, so heartwarming. The outcome of the 2004 Belmont Stakes was like the worst kind of cruelty joke.”

“His Triple Crown campaign was brilliant and mesmerizing, and his loss in the Belmont will always be one of the most heartbreaking moments in my racing memory.”

“I felt absolutely SICK. Poor Smarty, he gave his all that day.”

You get the picture. This is what Birdstone did to racing fans all over the country and to an entire big city and their love of a horse.

But the bottom line is that Birdstone did what he was supposed to do, what he was born to do. Others who directly deprived the world of a Triple Crown winner, such as Arts and Letters, Easy Goer, Victory Gallop, and Touch Gold were never maligned as Birdstone was.

The was the horse who trainer Nick Zito’s assistant Reynaldo Abreu dubbed “Little Man.” Abreu was the colt’s biggest supporter, and that is why he was bawling after the race, tears streaming down his face. He kept telling Zito, Marylou, and John Hendrickson “Don’t lose faith in Little Man. No matter what, don’t ever lose faith.”

After the race, Marylou went over to him and gave him a hug, saying, “You were right.”

Now, here Abreu was leading Birdstone, all 950 pounds of him, back to the test barn in front of a stunned and deflated crowd, too drained to pay any attention. Still shaking and with tears still running down hs cheek, Abreu said to the horse, “You deserve this, little one, you deserve it.” He then gave the colt a big slap on the rump. “They said you were too little, but they didn’t know how big your heart is.”

They also didn’t realize that the Champagne Stakes winner, who had finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby, despised sealed tracks, which was the condition of the track for the Run for the Roses. Not only did he flounder over the track, he lost a shoe and kept getting bounced around while stuck down on the rail.

After the Derby, Zito sent Birdstone to Saratoga to train. When the colt turned in a strong six-furlong work over the deep Oklahoma training track, Mrs. Whitney, despite wanting Smarty Jones to sweep the Triple Crown and feeling Birdstone was unable to beat him, nevertheless said to Zito, “Go for it.”

For Zito, it had been a frustrating year, especially with Birdstone. The half-brother to the previous year’s champion 3-year-old filly, Bird Town, was a late foal, being born on May 16, and hadn’t done much growing over the winter. “I just can’t understand it,” Zito said. “This poor horse has never gained a pound, and has never grown an inch. But he’s got guts and he has a right to run in the Belmont Stakes.”

Before the race, Abreu said, “Everybody’s been knocking this horse all along, and even Jerry Bailey deserted him. All because he’s little. I don’t want to hear it. I know he’s little; what can you do about it? There’s nothing wrong with being small. All I know is that I love this horse. He’s a running s.o.b. and he tries so hard. His only two bad races were on a sealed track. I’m telling you, they better have their running shoes on.”

Birdstone had been suffering indignities ever since he was a young horse. When he was sent to Padua Stables in Ocala, Florida, to be broken, it was learned after he arrived that he had been sent by mistake. The horse that was supposed to be shipped was a Storm Cat colt, who Overbrook Farm and Mrs. Whitney owned in a foal-sharing partnership. Farm trainer Randy Bradshaw was asked to check the newly arrived colt’s papers, which indicated he had a good deal of white on him. Bradshaw informed the parties involved that this was just “a plain little old bay.”

The colt remained, and Bradshaw wound up breaking a future Belmont winner. He recalled calling Zito and telling him, “He’s not very big, but he does everything right, he’s training well, and he’s very professional.”

Birdstone shipped down to Belmont from Saratoga the Wednesday before the Belmont, the same day Smarty Jones arrived. No one noticed. The next day, with the massive throng gathered outside Smarty’s barn, and the path to the track leading right past the barn, Zito elected to keep Birdstone away from the madness and sent him to the training track. Again, no one noticed.

“I can’t believe it over there,” Zito said, referring to Smarty’s barn. “I’m just going to the training track; it’s nice and calm there.”

Zito, like Mrs. Whitney, had no grandiose visions of upsetting Smarty Jones. “I don’t see how Smarty is going to get beat, unless he beats himself,” he said. “But what’s wrong with finishing second to a hero? If someone is going to beat him, they’re going to have to have a very good day and move way forward, while he has to move way back. But we’re looking at it positively. You have to.”

Zito took some comfort in knowing that if he did manage to pull off the upset, he, as a New York hero himself, might have a better chance of escaping the wrath of the crowd than if someone else perpetrated the dastardly deed. “The one thing I have going for me is that I do have the New York deal going, so maybe I’ll get a little break. They’ll only throw one beer can at me instead of the whole six pack,” he said.

The morning of the race, jockey Edgar Prado’s agent, Bob Frieze, stopped by the barn, which as usual was devoid of reporters or photographers. “Don’t worry,” Frieze told Zito. “We want the press here tomorrow, not today.”

The ominous weather forecast of a cold rain all day and heavy winds never materialized, with only a few light sprinkles falling on Belmont during the day. The crowd, as expected, came pouring in early and continued to arrive until late in the afternoon, shattering the old record of 103,222 set two years earlier.

Briefly, Prado eased Birdstone out off the rail down the backstretch and was able to get him to settle nicely, some three to four lengths off the lead. Stewart Elliott, feeling the pressure from Eddington on his outside and Rock Hard Ten and Purge on his inside, decided he’d have a better shot of getting Smarty to relax if he got him to the lead. But it took a brutal third quarter in :22 4/5 to get him there, and another testing quarter to keep him there. By the three-eighths pole, he had managed to run his three pursuers into the ground and quickly opened a clear lead as the crowd went crazy. The three big contenders were cooked.

But Prado still had a ton of horse, and it was time to pick up the pieces. “I knew I had a good chance to win at the three-eighths pole, when my horse kept coming slowly and Smarty wasn’t able to open up any more,” he said. “I knew all he had to do was maintain his speed and his pace and he was going to get there.”

Prado and Birdstone went after Smarty out in the middle of the track and suddenly the dream started evaporating right before everyone’s eyes. Each one of Birdstone’s little strides brought him closer to Smarty. Everyone knew by then that Smarty would have no ammunition left with which to fight back, and the wire was not coming up nearly fast enough for him to hang on.

Then came the familiar hush from the crowd, as it realized all was lost. Smarty was beaten for the first time in his career, finishing second by a length.

Smarty’s trainer John Servis came over to Zito, who was more restrained in his emotions than usual, and offered his congratulations. When Zito apologized, Servis said, “What do you mean? You did a great job.”

But for Birdstone, there still was one final indignity. Just as Abreu was about to lead the horse into the tunnel to return to the backstretch, he was instructed by the outrider to walk back along the track to a backstretch gate near the clubhouse turn. When he arrived, however, the gate was locked, with the locks held together by plastic cords. Abreu went from feelings of ecstasy to anger as he found himself stranded with a horse that needed water and to relax after his grueling trip.

Fortunately, he had a pair of scissors in his pocket and was able cut through the plastic. But his problems were far from over. By now, cars were piling out of the track, and as Abreu, Birdstone, and several others from Zito’s crew tried to make their way through the traffic, a stretch limo nearly ran into Birdstone. A number of patrons helped stop traffic while an incensed Abreu finally was able to lead Birdstone to the test barn.

Birdstone finally arrived at the test barn and then back at his own barn. There were few there to welcome him. By running his heart out over the testing distance of a mile and half he was branded a villain, and there are those who still shudder at the mention of his name and refuse to watch the race.

Fast forward to the Travers Stakes two and a half months later. With Smarty Jones sidelined with an injury, it was all about Birdstone this time. Marylou, known as “The Queen of Saratoga,” mainly due to her efforts in restoring the historic Spa back to its glory days, had an opportunity to emulate her late husband’s success in the Travers. It had been 36 years since C.V. Whitney captured the Midsummer Derby with Chompion, a son of the Whitney-owned and bred Tompion, who had won the Travers eight years before Chompion. So, this time a victory would be special.

And it was. Under a black canopy of clouds that had turned a sunny Adirondack afternoon into near darkness, Birdstone came charging down the Saratoga stretch to defeat stablemate The Cliff’s Edge. It was as if the clouds had been waiting for Birdstone to cross the finish line and complete his triumphant return before unleashing a deluge of Biblical proportions, even for Saratoga.

Marylou, soaking wet, stood on the track feeling a sense of the ethereal, as if there was something divine about this victory.

“I think the gods came out and did this; all this lightning and thunder to sort of congratulate him,” she said, as sheets of heavy rain cascaded down in wind-blown waves. “This is a dream come true.”

When she spotted Nick Zito, she clasped his hands in hers and asked, “Did we just cross the English Channel?”

By now, Marylou was soaked through and through, but that didn’t stop her from leading a chorus of “Singin’ in the Rain” with her husband, Zito and the rest of the team.

But this was not about her. It was all about Birdstone, who proved his Belmont Stakes victory at 30-1 was no aberration. For Marylou, the race, combined with the rain, was a cleansing of sorts. Smarty Jones had become a distant memory. This time there were no apologies, no feelings of regret for having conquered such a beloved hero.

“Smarty Jones made people all over the country love and cheer for a horse,” she said. “Then when we beat him I felt awful. This time I feel wonderful and I know now that Birdstone deserved to win the Belmont.”

In his first year at stud at Gainesway Farm, Birdstone did the unthinkable by siring the Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird and Belmont Stakes winner Summer Bird. But he never saw that kind of success again. And now, at the relatively young age of 19, he was relieved of his stud duties and sent to Old Friends, where he will be pampered and showcased like the celebrity he always should have been. And he will be doted upon by those too young to have been traumatized by his Belmont victory and hopefully by those who were, but can now see him as Reynaldo Abreu did – the “Little Man” with the big heart.


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