06/05/2002 12:00AM

Belmont warm-up for Baffert

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It was exactly five years ago Friday that Bob Baffert was alongside Bob and Beverly Lewis at Belmont Park, watching Silver Charm be passed by Touch Gold in the final furlong of the 129th Belmont Stakes.

That June 7, 1997, defeat remains one of the more gut-wrenching near-misses that have dotted Triple Crown futility in the 24 years since Affirmed became the last horse to complete the coveted sweep by winning the Belmont.

On Friday, Baffert will be in New York to await yet another shot at the Triple Crown, and he probably will be seated in front of a television set somewhere on the spacious Belmont grounds sometime around 7 p.m. Eastern to watch a simulcast of the ninth-race feature from Churchill Downs. Baffert will be represented by Tribunal, a 5-year-old who will carry the Lewises' green-and-yellow silks against five other older horses in a $54,000 allowance at 1 1/16 miles.

Tribunal, with Sal Gonzalez Jr. to ride, finished fourth in his last start, a May 2 route won by heavily favored Invisible Ink. Although that classified allowance extended Tribunal's winless streak to nine races - dating to Dec. 30, 2000 - his opposition during that time has included such standouts as Tiznow, Futural, Skimming, and Ubiquity, a far superior brand to what he will face here Friday.

Tribunal will race with blinkers in the Friday feature, which is the only allowance carded among 10 races. His strongest opposition appears to be Dhaffir, a recent winner for Mitch Shirota, and Law Review, a hard-trying speedster trained by Bernie Flint.

First post is 3:10 p.m.

Overnight purses increased

Churchill has announced a purse increase of 5 percent, effective Wednesday, which will be applied to all races except stakes.

The increase, which is being attributed primarily to record simulcast wagering on the Kentucky Derby, will add an average of $13,500 per day to overnight race purses for the final 25-day stretch of the 52-day spring meet.

Meanwhile, the track also announced that purse supplements from the Kentucky Thoroughbred Development Fund will be reduced by a daily average amount of $8,000 during the final 15 days of the meet. Cuts in the KTDF bonuses, which are earned by Kentucky-bred horses nominated to the program, are due to decreased in-state wagering.

Jefferson Cup lone stakes

Stakes action here this weekend is limited to Saturday's $250,000 Jefferson Cup, a 1 1/8-mile turf race in which about eight 3-year-olds are expected to run. Windward Passage and Mr. Mellon rank among the probable favorites.

The infield will be open both days this weekend for the annual Brew and Bar-B-Q Festival.

Ellis Park stakes

Ellis Park has released the 11-race stakes schedule for its 41-day meet, which begins July 10.

As usual, the richest race at the Henderson, Ky., track is the $200,000, Grade 3 Gardenia Stakes, a filly-mare fixture to be run Aug. 10.

The first stakes is the $100,000 HBPA Handicap on July 13.