06/02/2006 12:00AM

Belmont hardly a throwout


NEW YORK - No one in his right mind would claim that the 138th Belmont Stakes on Saturday shapes up as a vintage renewal. Without either the Kentucky Derby or Preakness winners in the field, much less a Triple Crown bid on the line, it seems highly likely that attendance and television ratings will tumble from their giddy heights of recent years.

On the other hand, that doesn't mean one needs to start scouring musty chart books from decades past to find a weaker Belmont lineup. How about going back a mere 52 weeks? That may sound like heresy, given that last year's Belmont featured a Triple Crown rubber match between Derby winner Giacomo and Preakness winner Afleet Alex, but a comparison of last year's 11 starters with this year's prospective field of 11 suggests that this year's field is actually a better one overall, even in the absence of Barbaro and Bernardini.

There's no one in this year's field who appears remotely as talented as Afleet Alex, but there's no evidence that Giacomo is any better than half of this year's lineup. Last year's Belmont had four graded-stakes winners, while this one has five. Last year's field had just three runners (Afleet Alex, Giacomo, and Reverberate) who had ever run a Beyer Speed Figure of 98 or better, while this year's has seven - High Finance (103), Bob and John (102), Deputy Glitters (102), Sunriver (102), Bluegrass Cat (101), Sacred Light (99), and Steppenwolfer (98).

Afleet Alex ran a Beyer Figure of 106 in his seven-length romp over Andromeda's Hero and Nolan's Cat, a maiden at the time. (When last seen, Nolan's Cat was winning a second-level allowance on the Derby undercard, beating Sacred Light by 1 1/4 lengths.) In fact, not one horse from last year's Belmont has gone on to win a single race of any significance.

Whether there's anyone who can run with Bernardini later this year or unseat Barbaro from atop the 3-year-old division is iffy, but at least there's some potential for some depth in the ranks. Bluegrass Cat is likely to be the favorite at around 3-1 off his second-place Derby finish. That's not a terrible price if you believe he is finally back to where he was last fall, when he won the Nashua and Remsen like a nice horse, but no bargain if you think he has not really improved since then and enjoyed a clean Derby trip while more talented rivals failed to fire or were compromised by bad trips.

There are plenty of alternatives: Steppenwolfer and Jazil, third and fourth in the Derby; Sunriver, the Peter Pan winner; Bob and John, the field's lone Grade 1 winner (Wood Memorial); Deputy Glitters, who swapped decisions with the likely favorite; even Oh So Awesome, the repatriated colt who raced in France until finishing well in an off-the-turf race in his American debut. While everyone regrets the circumstances that have led to the absence of Barbaro and Bernardini, this is an appealingly wide-open betting race.

The online betting site bodog.com has some interesting propositions posted on this Belmont. You can get 3.25-1 that the Belmont winner will be someone who didn't race in the Derby or Preakness, a group that at the moment includes High Finance, Oh So Awesome, Sacred Light, and Sunriver. You can get 2.25-1 that whoever wins will pay more than Bernardini's $27.80 Preakness win mutuel, and it's pick-em whether the Belmont winner will pay more than Barbaro's $14.20 in the Derby. Before you get too excited about any of these prices, note that wagers are limited to $100.

I'll take the under on last year's attendance of 62,274, but at 6-5 I'd take the over on the $87 million handle for the day. There are guaranteed $1 million pick-six and pick-four pools ending with the Belmont, and the undercard includes five Grade 1 or 2 stakes that are shaping up nicely, including the Acorn and what could be an excellent Manhattan if English Channel, Grey Swallow, Cacique, and Relaxed Gesture all show up.

Six Triple Crown bids in the last nine years have spoiled everyone, to the point where a Belmont day without a storyline of immortality is widely considered a dud before it starts. With seven graded stakes, a better Belmont field than it might seem, and maybe $90 million in very loose money flying around, it still sounds like a pretty good day at the races.