11/13/2006 1:00AM

The burden of Belmont preps


NEW YORK - I was on the same flight home from the Breeders' Cup as one of racing's Hall of Famers and all-time greats. Since we weren't seated in the same row, we didn't get a chance to share our thoughts on the races until it was time to deplane. After talking about the track bias that was prevalent at Churchill Downs on Breeders' Cup Day, and about how good Frankie Dettori really is, I admitted how amazed I was that Invasor could win a race like the Breeders' Cup Classic off a three-month layoff and to do so over a horse as good as Bernardini, who had two recent starts.

"You know," said the Hall of Famer, "those last races at Belmont just take too much out of the horses who run in them."

The Hall of Famer shall remain nameless, because he has clients who compete in Belmont's final round of prep races. The more I thought about what he said, the more I tried to come up with examples of horses who had success in Belmont's major preps in recent years and then went on to run well in the Breeders' Cup. And the more I was unable to come up with ammunition to refute his position, the more intrigued I became. It seemed an analysis of Belmont's final Breeders' Cup prep races was in order.

The races selected for scrutiny were the Frizette Stakes, a prelude to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies; the Champagne (Juvenile); Vosburgh (Sprint); Beldame (Distaff); and Jockey Club Gold Cup (Classic). I avoided Belmont's major turf preps - such as the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational, the Flower Bowl Invitational, and the Kelso - for two reasons: First, turf, even when it is "off," is a much more forgiving surface than dirt, and in some instances, especially so when compared with Belmont's sandy main track. Secondly, the corresponding Breeders' Cup events for these preps - the Turf, the Filly and Mare Turf, and the Mile - are so greatly influenced by the participation of European horses that it would make any sort of analysis almost unfair.

After picking the prep races, I decided to focus on the horses who finished first and second in them. That might sound arbitrary, but horses had to run well in most instances to finish first or second while also turning in efforts that had to be at least reasonably demanding. Doing this also helped to increase the sample size. I went back over the last 10 years, from 1997 through 2006, to see how these finishers in Belmont preps did when they ran back in the Breeders' Cup. The results were more startling than you might imagine.

In the Frizette, 15 of the 20 fillies who won or placed came back to run in the Juvenile Fillies. Only one of them won (Storm Flag Flying in 2002), and only one of them finished second.

In the Champagne, 15 of the 20 who won or placed came back to run in the Juvenile. None of them won, and four finished second.

Only 10 of the 20 horses who finished first or second in the Vosburgh ran back in the Sprint. Two of them won, and one finished second. But it is interesting to note that both winners - Squirtle Squirt in 2001 and Artax in 1999 - were successful before the concept of bringing horses to major events like the Breeders' Cup off long layoffs really took hold.

Sixteen of the 20 fillies and mares who finished first or second in the Beldame came back to compete in the Distaff. Two won, and none finished second. And as was the case in the Sprint, both victories - Beautiful Pleasure in 1999, and Ajina in 1997 - came early in the sample period.

Finally, 13 of the 20 who finished first or second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup came back in the Classic. There was only one winner, and Bernardini's placing was the only second. To find the winner, you have to go all the way back to the beginning of the sample period, to Skip Away in 1997.

Overall, first and second finishers in these five races over the last 10 years accounted for 69 Breeders' Cup starters. Of these 69, only six managed Breeders' Cup wins, the most recent in 2002. This is nothing short of amazing when you consider that each of these Belmont races was once a premier championship event. And although the stature of these races has diminished since the advent of the Breeders' Cup, these races are still among the richest of Breeders' Cup preps and still attract top horses.

During the last 10 years, there were nine other winners of Breeders' Cup races - three in the Classic, two in the Distaff, three in the Vosburgh, and one in the Juvenile Fillies - who made their last starts in New York, but they either did not compete in Belmont's final round of Breeders' Cup preps or did not deliver a demanding enough effort to finish first or second in them. And here is the kicker: Eight of these nine winners have occurred since 2002.