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RIDING WITH MR. JONES A year ago in this space, I touched on the subject of horse racing's Triple Crown and argued how desperately we needed America's latest underdog, Funny Cide, to capture the sport's greatest laurel. It had been 25 years since Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner in history. A war in Iraq, corporate scandal all over Wall Street, the tragic space shuttle disaster . . . 2003 needed some happy news. Alas, Funny Cide came up short in last year's Belmont Stakes, just as four other thoroughbreds have since 1997 in trying to earn the Triple Crown's final jewel. The 25-year drought between Triple Crown winners is the longest since Sir Barton won the first, in 1919. For some perspective, Jimmy Carter wasn't halfway through his lone term in the White House when Affirmed won the '78 Belmont. Wes Unseld's Washington Bullets beat Seattle to win the NBA title just three days before the race. And the Cincinnati Reds' George Foster was on his way to hitting a National League-leading 40 home runs. This was a long time ago, folks. Just as a year ago with Funny Cide, Smarty Jones will enter the gate this Saturday as the kind of underdog this country embraces like a long-lost teddy bear. He's small (15 hands, 3 inches), unruly (he cracked his skull having a tantrum in the starting gate last July), carries an unheralded jock (39-year-old Stewart Elliott), and is owned by a guy who needs an oxygen tank to get around (78-year-old emphysema-stricken Roy Chapman). And despite all the handicaps, Smarty Jones is kicking some equine tail (he won the Preakness by a record 11-and-a-half lengths). If we needed someone (something!) to cheer last spring, take a look at us now. The conflict in Iraq has grown incrementally worse with each of the 12 months passed. Mixed signals have us believing the economy is creating new jobs, with interest rates still extraordinarily low. But then we pay upwards of $2.00 a gallon to get our SUVs down the freeway. The most talked-about movie of the year is a Hollywood celebrity's brutal, blood-soaked interpretation of Christ's crucifixion. Spontaneous smiles, these days, seem to be in short supply. Can we turn to the NBA playoffs for a reprieve? One of the biggest stars still playing will be tried for sexual assault in a few short months. What about baseball? Between steroid rumors and a poorly conceived marketing strategy, the national pastime is a world for die-hards only. Tennis? Andre Agassi was eliminated in the first round of the French Open by a qualifier. What about the Stanley Cup finals, for crying out loud? Calgary against Tampa Bay. Gulp. So we turn to a cutely named thoroughbred runt, his alcoholic rider, and wheelchair-bound owner. With a victory Sunday, will Smarty Jones earn the same whispered reverence of racing royalty we've attached to the likes of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Citation? The passage of time and relative prevalence of future Triple Crown winners will answer that question. In the meantime, we cross our fingers. Last Monday, President Bush told the world, "History is moving, and it will tend toward hope or tend toward tragedy. We will persevere and defeat this enemy and hold this hard-won ground for the realm of liberty." As we all try and digest those words; as we all aim to accentuate the "hope" part; as we all explore the definition of the word "enemy;" as the American death toll in Iraq climbs beyond 800, perhaps the best we can hope for is a distraction here and there. Which is precisely where Smarty Jones and his Belmont jaunt come in. Even if only for two-and-a-half minutes, what a distraction this will be.

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