You could make a strong case that other than Secretariat's impossible run around the field on the first turn in 1973, the two Philly horses — Smarty Jones in 2004 and Afleet Alex in 2005 — were the most impressive winners in Preakness history.
All Smarty did was make the field disappear in the stretch, winning by the biggest margin in race history, 11 1/2 lengths, running the final 200 yards as if they were downhill. Just a year later, Alex looked as if he might win by as much on the far turn before Scrappy T cut him off and nearly sent the horse to his knees. Somehow, horse and jockey Jeremy Rose recovered their balance and blasted home, winning by 4 3/4 lengths.
Nobody is going to mistake Diamond King for Smarty or Alex when he runs in this Saturday's Preakness at Pimlico. Nobody, however, will miss the colt's trainer and/or one of the owners. That would be John Servis, who trained Smarty Jones through his brilliant career, and Chuck Zacney, who put together the group that purchased the wonderful Afleet Alex.
Smarty and Alex were favored to win the Preakness and went on to be named 3-year-old champions. Kentucky Derby winner Justify is a 1-2 morning-line favorite to win this Preakness. Diamond King is 30-1.
Neither Servis nor Zacney is under any illusions about his chances of beating Justify. Diamond King would have to improve about 10 lengths off his best performance to upset Justify at his best. But they got a free roll into the race when Diamond King won the Federico Tesio Stakes on April 21 at Laurel Park and, really, just hitting the board in the Preakness would be an accomplishment. That they got top jockey Javier Castellano, who won last year's Preakness on Cloud Computing, is also cause for some optimism.
"Obviously, he's going to have to have everything go his way,'' Servis said. "He's doing great.''
The trainer has great respect for Justify.
"Beast,'' he said.
Diamond King has run six times, with four wins and a third. Leading Parx jockey Frankie Pennington has ridden him in all six starts. Parx-based trainer Butch Reid had the colt for his first four starts before Diamond King was sent south, where Servis maintains a stable in winter.
Zacney will not be alone at Pimlico. Thirteen years later, some of the Alex entourage will reconvene.
"We have a party of 60 in a tent area, and we probably have another 50 sprinkled throughout other venues at Pimlico,'' Zacney said. "Not bad for a week's notice.''
Regardless of how this Preakness turns out, nothing changes what went down in 2004 and 2005.
"I felt good until I saw Rock Hard Ten walk into my barn,'' Servis said of 2004. "He's massive. I was thinking, `My poor horse.' ''
Smarty was the medium-sized horse with the massive engine. Rock Hard Ten took a run at him on the far turn, and then his jockey, Gary Stevens, described Smarty's rear end getting smaller and smaller through the stretch.
Servis remembers the day after that Preakness, when they checked on Smarty, who was fine. So Servis, his brother and father got in the Visa courtesy car. Brother Jason, also a trainer, was driving. He could not get the steering wheel to unlock. He started to get aggravated. Dad Joe asked where his programs were that he wanted to save. That is when they realized they were in the wrong car.
"They all looked the same,'' Servis said.
The Alex parties were legendary before the Preakness. They somehow got better after that, not the least because of the horse's legendary performance, which Zacney kind of missed live because it all happened so fast.
"I remember we were walking back to the barn, and you said, `Did you ever see the race?' '' Zacney said. "We stopped to watch [the replay], and I was like, `Oh my God.' I didn't realize [the near fall] was that bad.''
Zacney has had several trainers through the years. He calls his relationship with Servis "probably the best I've ever had with a trainer.''