No one wanted him to win. Or, at least, that's how it seemed to Nick Zito.
More than 120,000 fans had packed the stands at Belmont Park in June 2004. An additional 21.9 million had tuned in on television, which remains a record to this date. All but a handful of spectators were hoping to see Smarty Jones win the Triple Crown.
Instead, in one of the most thrilling finishes in the race's history, Zito's Birdstone surged down the stretch, passed Smarty Jones and won by a length. The victory was so stunning, so crowd deflating, that Zito immediately sought out the trainer of the beaten favorite on the track. "I'm so sorry," he told John Servis.
"Smarty Jones was a popular horse and a lot of people fell in love with that story line," Zito recalled last week. "But I had a job to do, and John knew it. And that's what he said to me: 'Hey, you did your job.' "
The role of the spoiler is one of the loneliest in sports. Still, there will be six trainers more than happy if they can play it Saturday in the Belmont Stakes and end American Pharoah's quest to become the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978.
It's an odd role to play. Just like no one is cheering for the batter to break up a no-hitter in the ninth inning, no one wants to see a horse ruin another's chance at winning a Triple Crown. Fans pack the stands and tune into broadcasts to see history. They're not cheering for you. They're cheering to be a part of a big moment. And if you're the guy who wants to take that big moment away, well, you have to have a certain mentality.
"All that can enter your mind is that you're trying to win the Belmont," Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey said. "That's how I felt. If we didn't win, I didn't care who won."
That was McGaughey's attitude when his horse, Easy Goer, beat Triple Crown contender Sunday Silence by eight lengths in 1989. Still, McGaughey believes that having a Triple Crown winner would be good for the sport, bringing in some fans who might not pay attention to racing otherwise.
"With the way social media is today there's so much talk about it leading up to the race," McGaughey said. "American Pharoah has a lot of fans. I think if he can do it, it will be very exciting, very good for racing."
Thirteen horses have tried and failed to win the Triple Crown at Belmont since Affirmed. Zito has twice been the trainer of the spoiler. In addition to knocking off Smarty Jones, he trained Da'Tara, who won the Belmont in 2008 in the race where Big Brown didn't finish.
Saturday, Zito could become the unofficial king of the spoilers when he saddles Frammento in an attempt to foil American Pharoah's Triple Crown bid. Early this week, Frammento was a 40-1 long shot, but Zito said he feels good about his horse.
"He's a true distance horse," Zito said. "He has the talent to win this race. That mile and a half is not a mile and a quarter. It's a long race. It's a tough, grueling race. If it's a dry track for a mile and a half and if I can keep my horse happy, which he is right now, we have a decent chance."
Zito, 67, knows this race as well as anyone; he is a lifelong New Yorker and trains out of Belmont. He grew up in Queens, seven miles from the track. He began his career as a hot walker at Aqueduct before moving up to a groom. Frammento will be his 25th start in the Belmont Stakes. Seven times he has taken second place in the race.
He said to win it a third time at this point in his career would be the ultimate cap. Said Zito: "We always kid around that we're getting older but we're not ancient. It would be a great achievement."
And if he has to be a spoiler, so be it.
"With Smarty Jones, it was great being a part of history," Zito said. "It didn't matter that the story was about Smarty Jones losing instead of Birdstone winning. I don't feel anything but gratitude for what happened that day."