By Steve Ginsburg
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The jockey who came agonizingly close to winning the Triple Crown aboard Smarty Jones nearly a decade ago believes I'll Have Another is poised to join one of thoroughbred racing's most exclusive clubs.
Stewart Elliott said I'll Have Another and jockey Mario Gutierrez can win the $1 million Belmont Stakes on Saturday in New York and end the 34-year drought of Triple Crown champions.
"I think he's got a great shot, I really do," Elliott told Reuters
"There are a couple fresh horses, that missed the Preakness.
"Union Rags could run really good. But I like this horse, I'll Have Another. Besides, it'd be nice to see him winning. It would be great for the business, you know!"
Stewart and Gutierrez had similar paths to the cusp of Triple Crown glory, jockeys plucked from relative obscurity and thrust into the sport's brightest spotlight.
Smarty Jones lost his bid for immortality when he was overtaken in the final furlong of the 2004 Belmont Stakes by 36-1 longshot Birdstone, the one-length loss eliciting an audible groan from an overflow crowd ready to witness a slice of history.
Despite leading by nearly four lengths with a quarter-mile to go, Elliott knew his popular colt, who began his career as a sprinter running six- and seven-furlong races, was in trouble.
The mile-and-a-half Belmont Stakes, known as the Test of Champions, would claim another victim.
"I knew going around the first turn and into the backside that it just wasn't going to work," Elliott said, his frustration still fresh even though the race was eight years ago.
"He never settled. I couldn't slow my horse down. He was just was too aggressive. Looking back, I don't think there's anything I could have done different. That was him."
Elliott, now 46 and winner of nearly 4,500 races, said it was the Arkansas Derby, and not the Kentucky Derby, Preakness or Belmont Stakes, that really frayed his nerves.
"Now that was pressure. If he didn't get first or second there, he wouldn't have had enough earnings to go to the Kentucky Derby. And that was my first million-dollar race.
"That's the first race that hit me as far as pressure. And after I got that one over with and he won, then going to the Derby and all the rest of them, the pressure wasn't as bad."
Elliott was based at tiny Philadelphia Park before his adventure with Smarty Jones and he remains there today. He believes Gutierrez, a top rider at little-known Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver, can win Saturday despite his lack of big-race experience.
Do not count a jockey out just because he is not a regular at big tracks like Churchill Downs, Santa Anita or Belmont Park, said Elliott, adding that his Triple Crown flirtation was anything but a fluke.
"What people don't understand, is I've been riding thoroughbred races since I was 16 years old," said Elliott, who in 2004 became the first jockey in 25 years to win the Kentucky Derby on his first attempt.
"We ride thousands of horses. We ride horses every day. Of course we don't ride the Kentucky Derby or Belmont Stakes every day. But it's pretty much the same thing. You're riding a horse.
"Once the gates open, it's like we've done it a thousand times. It's like driving a car for us. It's second hand."
Last month, Gutierrez, 25, became the first jockey since Elliott to win the Kentucky Derby on his maiden attempt. The pressure on him will be great this week but Elliott said he will have to put his hand up when the demands become too intense.
"It's pretty much non-stop every day," Elliott said. "Everyone wants to meet with you. He needs to do the best he can but when he can't take it no more, once in a while he has to tell them he needs a break.
"He's in a position to maybe win the Triple Crown. That's something that doesn't happen to many people."
(Editing by Julian Linden)