June 05, 2004

Hold Your Breath

Today is a day of great trepidation in Philadelphia, for today is a day of possible deliverance.

Today is a day that can end The Curse. A day that can wipe away three consecutive trips over the doorjamb of the dance. A day that can reverse a sprawling, mad March stumble. A day that can put lightening back in the bottle. A day that can drag glory out of the cellar.

For today Smarty Jones runs in the Belmont stakes.

And here in Philadelphia, the prospect of this little-horse-that could—this horse that is oh so Philadelphia … smaller than the others, a bit beaten up, yet full of spirit and fight—the prospect of this Philadelphia horse winning the Triple Crown? Well, that’s a prospect that has the entire city on the edge of its seat. Holding its breath.

Because in Philadelphia sports the more you want something and the better your chances, the more you expect to fail. For 23 years (and really, for nearly a century), ours has been a history of regular mediocrity punctuated by brilliant flashes of failure … grand, majestic, operatic failure.


In 123 years of committing baseball, the Philadelphia Phillies have won just one world championship, in 1980. And in 1964, holding a 6 ½ game lead with 12 games to play, the Phillies lost the pennant in one of the great busts in baseball history. The ghosts of that late September haunt Philadelphia to this day:

In September of 64 I entered high school, struggled with Algebra and Chemistry and learned that polyester shirts with pocket protectors were not cool. A strange and traumatic world was only softened by the realization that the Phillies were going to win the pennant. They were the talk of the city. Phillies placards graced the sides of every bus and trolley car in town! Phillies baseball cards were quickly removed from bicycle spokes, and my previous Mickey Mantle “for anybody in a Phils uniform” card trades were becoming a shining example of my future financial savvy. In short, we were on top of the world. Nothing to do now but schedule the clinching party and wait for the first pitch of the series. A happy town awoke on the morning of September 21st, the Phils had a six and a half game lead, and the magic number was 7. Little were we to know however, there was a “darkness on the edge of town”! Every Phillies fan of the 60's recalls this day of infamy. 9-21-64 Mahaffey pitching, sixth inning, Chico Ruiz steals home! Phils lose to Reds 1-0.

From there, the Phils went on to lose nine consecutive games and the Pennant.

In 80 years of playing football, the Philadelphia Eagles have won only three league championships, all prior to 1960. They’ve been to just one Super Bowl, losing to the wild-card Oakland Raiders 27-10. Most recently, they’ve played in three consecutive NFC Championship games, losing each, and two at home, one each to the previously hapless and expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Carolina Panthers.

Crashing the boards since 1967, the Philadelphia Flyers have engraved their names on Lord Stanely’s Cup only twice, in 1974 and 1975. In the 29 years since, they’ve played in the Stanley Cup Finals five times, losing each with a combined record of 20-6 and winning an average of just one game per series, and being swept 4-0 in their most recent appearance in 1997.

Finally, the Sixers. In their 41 year history in Philadelphia the 76ers have won world championships in 1967 and 1983. They have made four other trips, losing each time, most recently 1-4 in 2001.

This city has not had a parade down Broad Street in 21 years. That’s 84 combined seasons of play across the four major teams, and not one championship. In hushed tones, people here call it “The Curse”: that since city ordinances were changed to permit the building of structures higher than William Penn’s hat on City Hall, no major Philadelphia team has won its championship series. And when we’ve lost, we’ve lost in dramatic, bold fashion.

Because of this … because of our mad concoction of love of sport and dismal performance … we want the Triple Crown. We want it so bad we can feel it … hell, we NEED it.

Indeed, we want it so bad we’re afraid of it.

So around here today, Philadelphians everywhere are going about our preparations for The Big Race with an air of excitement, optimism, and hesitation. We’re asking ourselves questions like “Should I get a centerpiece for the table that has roses, black eyed susans and white carnations, or should I just get tulips?” Thinking, “Should I splurge for the short ribs, or should I just get beef ribs?” Wondering if we should buy the champagne.

Because we know: the more we want it, and the better our odds, the more likely we are to … well … we can’t say it. We just know it in our bones, where it aches like a cold, damp spring night.

That said, the necessity of being a Philadelphia sports fan is the necessity of optimism. We must find a reason to rise another day, regardless of the dampness of the night, and so we do. And out of this optimism, we dare to hope about Smarty Jones. In the end, we’ll buy all three flowers, the short ribs, and the champagne. Because today just might be the day … the day of our deliverance.

What’s more, there’s something a bit different about this latest opportunity for victory … something just a bit different about this horse, about this time, about this sport. He’s a tough horse. People say he looks at other horses like he knows he can kick their ass. He’s strong and fast and charismatic, and perhaps best of all for Philadelphia sports fans, who like their heroes bold but real, gritty but humble, Smarty simply wants to win. He simply wants to run, have fun in the dirt, and win. He’s an athlete as athletes once were, a hero we can admire once again.

So we feel today may just be a bit different … and as we talk about The Race with hesitation and trepidation, deep down inside there’s a small nugget of warm hope, an inkling of confidence that yes, by God, I think today’s going to be the day.

As Bill Lyon wrote today:

On Hempstead Pike, just down from the Triple Crown bar, just across from Gate 6 and the stable area entrance at Belmont Park, is a cubbyhole diner, and at the counter a man in faded jeans and white undershirt is bending over his eggs and potatoes and talking to himself.

Suddenly, he rises off his stool and puts the first two fingers of each hand on top of his head in impersonation of a horse's ears. With his right arm and hand, he makes the motion of a jet plane taking off.

“Smarty Jones,” he croons.

He watches as the imaginary Smarty soars up and out, presumably disappearing from view. And he looks and he looks, as we do while watching a loved one leave, and then he whispers after it:


Smarty Jones. The Curse. Whoosh … gone.

Posted by Avocare at June 5, 2004 10:43 AM | TrackBack

I really should go to Belmont today, but DJ has his All Star game. My sister is going, I'll give her some money to put on Smarty in honor of Philadelphia.

Posted by: michele at June 5, 2004 11:05 AM

Alas, all the more reason not to bet on Smarty Jones - wonder if the tv broadcasters will pick up on this theme, though. I am surprised at how this horse out of all the Triple Crown contenders over the past few years has fired up the imagination of Joe Six-Pack and Sally Starbucks. I was in TGIF and heard one of the bus boys talking about this and on the plane the two gay guys in front of me couldn't read enough about Smarty Jones in USA Today. Perhaps its his story (Phillie, unknown jockey/trainer/owner) and the Seabiscuit thing that's making horse racing all of a sudden the sport people are talking about.

It's about time, too. I mean even Cigar (the gelding who won virtually every race) back in the early '90s didn't create this much excitement (at least outside California).

Posted by: Jim H at June 5, 2004 01:05 PM

Update: We bought the champagne, and the good beef and all three flowers. And 25 $2 bets on Belmont Race 11, Number 9. Keep your fingers crossed ...

Posted by: Alan at June 5, 2004 02:35 PM

Erik heard this song earlier and we thought it would interest you and the crew...www.q102.com/audio/smarty.mp3.

Posted by: Carolynne & Erik at June 5, 2004 05:37 PM
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