05/29/2009 12:00AM

Belmont remains a 'breeders' race'


NEW YORK - At some point this week, you will hear that the Belmont Stakes is an irrelevant anachronism because of its 12-furlong distance, that it rewards an outmoded virtue called stamina that breeders no longer prize, and that it's high time to shorten the race and stop making it so darned hard for horses to win the Triple Crown.

Don't believe a word of it.

There's no disputing that the distance of the Belmont has become highly unusual in American racing: Of the 115 Grade 1 races scheduled for 2009, only five of them are as long as 1 1/2 miles, and the other four - the Sword Dancer, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, Breeders' Cup Turf, and Hollywood Turf Cup - are all run on the grass. Of the 159 Grade 2 races on the calendar, only Friday's Brooklyn Handicap is at 12 furlongs on the main track, and it was only stretched out to that distance last year.

So except for the very occasional foreign import, no Belmont starter has ever raced this far before, and people act as if the extra two furlongs are the equivalent of asking a horse to jump through a flaming hoop or haul a beerwagon in addition to winning a race. This often makes the Belmont winner sound like the victor in some bizarre obstacle-course exercise instead of as worthy a classic winner as a Derby or Preakness victor.

The history, even the recent one, says otherwise. Already in this decade, we have seen Point Given, Empire Maker, and Afleet Alex get beaten in Kentucky Derbies they probably should have won, and all three came back to win the Belmont with authority. The list of Belmont winners over the last 50 years is every bit as distinguished as the Derby or Preakness rolls of honor.

The Belmont was once known as a "breeders' race," but you don't hear that sobriquet much any more, because of this notion that the Belmont crowns only specialists and survivors at an odd and unreasonable distance. Again, the record just doesn't bear this out. Belmont winner A.P. Indy was the important stallion from the Triple Crown class of 1992, not Derby winner Lil E. Tee. Same goes for Lemon Drop Kid rather than Charismatic in 1999. And while one crop does not a stallion make, the early returns suggest we'll be saying the same thing about the class of 2004.

It was just five years ago that the widely beloved Smarty Jones was collared by some 36-1 shot named Birdstone in deep stretch of the Belmont, denying him a Triple Crown while reducing children and chalkplayers to tears. Birdstone, despite winning three Grade 1 races (he also won the Champagne at 2 and the Travers at 3) to Smarty's Derby and Preakness, went off to stud in obscurity at a fee of $10,000, considered another one of those goofy Belmont winners. Smarty Jones was syndicated in the $40 million neighborhood and stood for $100,000. The bloodstock market had pronounced that an overachieving son of the miler Elusive Quality was 10 times more valuable than a Belmont-winning son of Derby-winning Grindstone.

The gap narrowed a bit when their yearlings hit the sales ring. According to the Jockey Club, the first 72 Smarty Jones yearlings offered at public auction averaged $158,043, while the first 44 Birdstones have fetched an average of $37,530. But don't be surprised if that gap narrows a lot further from here on in.

On the racetrack, 48 starters by Smarty Jones have earned a combined $1.1 million and include only two stakes winners, one of them in Puerto Rico. The 42 Birdstones who have started have earned $3.07 million, including seven stakes winners, the Kentucky Oaks runner-up and, of course, the 2009 Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird. Smarty Jones's stud fee is already down to $40,000 and Birdstone's is headed up after already being doubled to $20,000.

With Rachel Alexandra skipping the Belmont, Mine That Bird will be clearly favored to win the race and should be. His Derby victory and narrow Preakness defeat are simply much better races than any of his likely rivals has ever run. Because he was gelded early on - what demand was there ever going to be for a son of Birdstone at stud? - a Belmont victory won't make him any more valuable, but it will demonstrate yet again the danger of underestimating a horse just because he won that crazy, creaky old Belmont Stakes.

Hirsch memorial set at Belmont

Joe Hirsch, the Daily Racing Form columnist who died Jan. 9 after more than 50 years in which he was considered the dean of American turf writers, will be remembered by friends, fans, and horsemen Friday morning at Belmont Park. The memorial service, open to the public, will begin at 10:30 a.m. on the fourth floor of the track clubhouse.