06/14/2007 12:00AM

Belmont slow early, fast late


NEW YORK - There were 46,870 witnesses who will swear that the 139th Belmont Stakes was run on Long Island last Saturday, but pace handicappers would swear that the race was contested on either Keeneland's Polytrack or soggy turf at Longchamp.

While it had been 102 years since a filly had won the Belmont, the way that this edition unfolded was nearly as rare, and had more in common with a European grass marathon than an American classic. On a track quick enough that allowance horses ran six furlongs in 1:08.82 earlier on the card, the tightly bunched field ran the first half of the Belmont in a glacial 1:15.32. The only other times since 1970 that the Belmont pace has been so slow were on dull or muddy tracks, when similar fractions of 1:15o1/5 were posted in 1980 and 1995. The final times of those races, however, were 2:29 4/5 and 2:32, as opposed to last Saturday's 2:28.74.

You have to go back to Arts and Letters in 1969 to find a Belmont that went this slowly early and finished up as quickly. Arts and Letters walked to the lead in 1:16 1/5, then came home in 1:12 3/5 for a final time of 2:28 4/5. This year, five of the seven runners in the Belmont ran their last six furlongs faster than the first six furlongs. Even Hard Spun, the speed of the race on paper, went 1:15.43 for the first half of the race and 1:15.21 for the second half.

That's probably not what his camp had in mind, and both the distance of the race and the quality of the competition may have been beyond Hard Spun's grasp in any case. Still, it was a peculiar effort from a horse who, at least in retrospect, could have been coasting by daylight with a first six furlongs in 1:14.

The bizarre pace did nothing to diminish the efforts of Rags to Riches or Curlin, who separated themselves from the others at the top of the stretch as if they simply play in another league. The two of them came home head and head through a brilliant final quarter of 23.83 seconds, obviously made possible by the slow pace but nonetheless exceptional efforts by 3-year-olds going 12 furlongs in June.

It was a stirring conclusion to what turned out to be a Triple Crown of three true gems: Street Sense's dazzling run up the rail in the Derby, Curlin's improbable last-gasp move in the Preakness, and then a classic duel in the Belmont with its historic outcome. You couldn't have scripted three better horse races.

Perhaps the fresh memory of them will call a temporary halt to the incessant efforts of well-meaning commentators who think the Triple Crown needs fixing, whether it's adding a week between the second and third legs or stretching the series out over eight to 10 weeks. Doing either would devalue the challenge and, whenever it happens next, the achievement of what has become the most elusive prize in modern American sports. Curlin's outstanding performances in all three races, even forgetting that he only made his racing debut in February, proves that contesting the entire series is not beyond the capacity of a really good horse.

Papi Chullo on brink of stardom

Rags to Riches was not the only horse who won a stakes race at Belmont last Saturday with an impressive effort after a poor start, and her winning Beyer Speed Figure of 107 was not the best of the day. That honor went to Papi Chullo, whose five-length victory in the Birdstone Stakes on the undercard earned a 109 and served notice that he may be a serious player in the handicap ranks for the rest of the year.

Papi Chullo spotted the field a few lengths when he was unprepared for the start, quickly roared into contention, and drew off by five lengths over Hesanoldsalt and A. P. Arrow, who were second and third in the same order behind Invasor in the Donn earlier this year.

Papi Chullo always showed high promise but was arguably the most mismanaged horse in the country under his previous ownership, which ran him in four stakes races while he was still a maiden and moved him to five different trainers in his first 16 starts. He was finally rescued from this chaos when purchased privately last month by a partnership headed by the Winning Move Stable and turned over to Gary Contessa.

Papi Chullo could be the breakout horse for Contessa, whose operation has grown to dominate the Aqueduct portion of the New York racing calendar the last two years. Contessa's horses have made more than 3,600 starts the last five years but only 39 of those have been in graded stakes, where his only victories have come with Accountforthegold, Magnolia Jackson, and Woodlander. Papi Chullo looks like his best one yet, and ready to make some noise at the highest level of the game.