06/08/2006 12:00AM

Bragging rights in second tier

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Horsephotos
Sacred Light, here with exercise rider Martin De Rubin, has not won a stakes in his seven races.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - About the most anyone can hope for on Saturday is that the 138th running of the Belmont Stakes will reveal once and for all the identity of the sixth- or seventh-best 3-year-old in this year's crop.

Based upon their accomplishments, it is pretty clear that Barbaro, Bernardini, Sweetnorthernsaint, Lawyer Ron, and Brother Derek lead the way. Too Much Bling is the fastest of the class at less than a mile, although Songster may have something to say about that in the Woody Stephens Stakes on the Belmont undercard. And don't forget, the second half of the season could be spiced by the returns of Stevie Wonderboy and Henny Hughes, the colts who finished one-two in the 2005 Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

In order to secure the rank of sixth- or seventh-best 3-year-old from the foal crop of 2003, one of the Belmont runners must plumb unknown depths of speed and stamina. Hopefully, one of them will separate himself from the pack, and we can go back to enjoying what once appeared to be a banner crop.

When it comes to great crops of American Thoroughbreds to race in the last half-century or so, the first group that comes to mind hit the ground in 1954. From those 9,064 registered foals came the towering Hall of Famers Bold Ruler, Round Table, and Gallant Man, as well as Iron Liege, who beat them in the Kentucky Derby.

There is probably an even better argument for the American crop of 1970, since it included Hall of Famers Secretariat, Forego, Desert Vixen, Dahlia, and La Prevoyante, along with Mr. Prospector, Ancient Title, Linda's Chief and Sham.

Of course, every foal crop ends up with a Derby, a Preakness, and a Belmont winner by default. It is what they do when they leave the protective fold of their 3-year-old age group that sets a class apart.

For instance, the 1994 American crop was led by Derby and Preakness winner Silver Charm and his California-bred nemesis, Free House, who were the only foals from a pool of 35,340 to win major stakes at ages 2, 3, 4, and 5.

Beyond the 1997 Triple Crown, the 1994 crop was also represented by the winners of the 1998 Breeders' Cup Classic (Awesome Again), the 1998 Dubai World Cup (Silver Charm), the 1998 Pacific Classic (Free House), the 1998 Met Mile (Wild Rush), and the 1999 Santa Anita Handicap (Free House again).

"It was a pretty deep group, and many of them ran in the Belmont," said Dave Hofmans, who trained 1997 Belmont Stakes winner Touch Gold as a 3-year-old for Frank Stronach.

Hofmans is back at the Belmont this year with Sacred Light, a son of Holy Bull bred and owned by John and Jerry Amerman. Compared with Touch Gold's preparation for the race, the trainer's latest experience has been a stroll in the park.

Touch Gold won the 1997 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland, passed on the Kentucky Derby, and went into the Preakness Stakes fresh and fit. At Pimlico, he stumbled badly leaving the gate, nearly dislodging Chris McCarron in the process. They soldiered on to finish a close fourth.

Touch Gold tore up his left front hoof at the break that day, splitting the wall so badly that his chances of making the Belmont Stakes looked grim. But with the help of hoof specialist Ian McKinlay, Hofmans and his crew were able to give Touch Gold's foot the repair it required and train him just enough to maintain his Preakness form.

"It took a horse who could endure a lot," Hofmans recalled. "With all the work we did on him, he had to have a lot of patience. I know at times it had to bother him, going through all the discomfort, and we couldn't really tranquilize him, because the race was so close. But he went right through it. I think he understood he had a problem and we were working on it. If he'd had a different temperament we wouldn't have made it."

In the Belmont itself, Touch Gold responded to a brilliant, improvisational ride by McCarron. They led the field out of the gate and around the first turn, took back along the inside to run fourth down the backstretch, then reappeared in the middle of the track to run down Silver Charm in the final yards, spoiling a Triple Crown in the process.

"It was a great ride," Hofmans said, still amazed. "Go to the front, take back, and go to the front again. I walked up to Chris after the race and said, 'You rode him just like I told you to.' "

Hofmans is not ready to put his 2006 Belmont starter in the same category as Touch Gold. After seven lifetime starts, Sacred Light has yet to win a stakes event, although he has run well behind Brother Derek and fellow Belmont runner Bob and John. In his last start, Sacred Light was second to the older horse Nolan's Cat in an allowance race at Churchill Downs.

"He tries every time," Hofmans said. "I think he's going to hit the right distance and the right field at the right time, and I think he's going to do something."

What that something is, Hofmans is not quite sure. But he is willing to risk his perfect 1-for-1 record in the Belmont Stakes.

"Yes I am - putting it right on the line," he said. "I'm throwing down the gauntlet . . . at 15-1."

Bring 'em on.