05/30/2001 11:00PM

Belmont is no two-horse race (think pace)

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There is no escaping the rubber match theme of Belmont Stakes 2001: Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos vs. Preakness winner Point Given.

Yet the motif seems presumptuous, considering no fewer than seven others are aiming for the final leg of the Triple Crown. Make no mistake - Monarchos and Point Given have risen to the head of their class. But let it be stated clearly - the Belmont is not a two-horse race.

This is not to knock either colt. Point Given's triumph in the Preakness was every bit as legitimate as the crushing Derby conquest by Monarchos. Grade 1 winners going in, their victories in the first two legs of the Triple Crown validated the top-class form they established in early spring.

Now the campaign heads to New York, and the question remains - which colt is better? This misguided line of questioning may lead bettors to look at the Belmont as a match race. It is anything but. Whether one believes Monarchos is better than Point Given, or vice-versa, bettors must put aside the horse-against-horse concept and view the Belmont for what it is: a horse race with nine potential winners. It is a race filled with nuances and opportunity.

Handicapping the Belmont, like any race, requires one to address the fundamentals of speed, class, and condition - and, of course, pace. Bettors who botched pace analysis for the Derby might shy away from it in the Belmont. But you can't run away from something just because you've been wrong about it before. Bettors who fail to consider the pace scenario of the Belmont risk missing one of the prime wagering opportunities of spring.

A brutal early pace contributed to Monarchos's runaway win in the Kentucky Derby. Everyone knows this. All five speed horses who entered the Derby had the same idea: run to the point of exhaustion. They did, and the race set up perfectly to be won from behind by Monarchos.

Two weeks later at Pimlico, Derby winner Monarchos struggled throughout. Point Given rebounded from his "Derby absence" - a disappointing fifth - and cruised in the Preakness.

While much of the post-Derby analysis centered on pace, little was made of the pace in the Preakness. No reason to, because the fractions made sense: a half-mile in 47.32 seconds, six furlongs in 1:11.86, and a final time of 1:55.51. Point Given delivered his knockout punch in the middle of the race, and won clear.

Beyond the fractions, handicappers must examine the "shape" of the race. That is, how was the race won?

Like the Derby, the Preakness was won from behind. This was partly because outclassed longshots Richly Blended and Mr. John sandwiched distance-challenged Congaree, and all three melted. It was a come-from-behind exacta - Point Given rallied from ninth; runner-up A P. Valentine rallied from seventh.

Now we arrive at the Belmont, where an entirely different pace scenario emerges. Gone is the five-way collection of speed horses who fried in the Derby. Gone are the three front-runners who contested the Preakness. Gone is an early challenge to the one horse who may yet steal a Grade 1.

Handicappers who considered Balto Star in the Kentucky Derby can only be faulted for misanalyzing the pace scenario. Contrarian thinking - that Balto Star could win because he was the speed of the speed - proved mistaken. He dueled, wilted, and finished 14th.

The Derby, however, does not detract from Balto Star's achievements in successive Grade 2's at Turfway Park and Oaklawn Park. Given an uncontested lead in the Spiral and Arkansas Derby, Balto Star was long gone.

One week from today, in his first start since the Derby, Balto Star will enter the gate as the only front-runner in the Belmont field.

Perhaps he cannot stay 1 1/2 miles. It is possible Balto Star is simply not good enough. But he will get the best trip in racing. Loose on the lead at 6-1 or higher, the gelding is worthy of a gamble.

Balto Star, lonely leader, can race wire to wire.