06/08/2008 11:00PM

Denis of Cork a value stab


NEW YORK - The first Belmont Stakes I attended was the 1978 epic between Affirmed and Alydar, where a Triple Crown was won for the third time in six years and the 11th time overall. Thirty years later, we're all still waiting for the 12th.

Since then, 10 horses have walked into the Belmont Stakes starting gate with a chance to become the next, and every one of them lost. Will the 11th time be the charm? It could, but I wouldn't bet on it, especially at odds of 2-5.

The case for Big Brown is compelling. He's unbeaten in five starts, which he has won by a combined 39 lengths. His 4 3/4-length Kentucky Derby triumph and 5 1/4-length Preakness victory were unusually dominant performances. He won the Derby from post 20 at will, cruising by his rivals with disdainful ease while losing ground on both turns. In the Preakness, he was wrangled back early, turned loose for one powerful burst at the top of the stretch, and then deliberately geared down late to leave something in the tank for the final leg of the challenge.

Even the things about him that once seemed like shortcomings have now turned in his favor. Winning the Derby in his fourth career start was a historically daunting assignment, but winning the Belmont in his sixth is not as outlandish - Rags to Riches and Curlin were both making their sixth career starts in last year's Belmont. The same light racing and training schedule that left many wondering if he had enough seasoning for the Derby now has him looking unusually fresh for a third race in five weeks, a crucible that has left other horses wrung out and vulnerable to better-rested rivals. Instead, after the Preakness, Big Brown looked more like a horse on his way to the track for a gallop than one returning from battle.

The negatives are few, but there are enough of them to pause before taking 40 cents on the dollar. For various reasons, his most accomplished rivals have to date failed to run their best races - the second and third choices in both the Derby and Preakness barely showed up, none of them running better than sixth. He has never been confronted or challenged by a quality rival in full flight. Against the clock, whether you're looking at raw times or at speed figures that account for the quickness of the track, his Derby was only ordinary, his Preakness subpar. Maybe he can run faster if he has to, but that's a lot of maybe for 2-5.

The first obvious alternative is Casino Drive, a fascinating story in his own right. Delivered by the same dam, Better Than Honour, who foaled the last two Belmont Stakes winners, Jazil and Rags to Riches, Casino Drive romped in his debut by 11 1/2 lengths in February in Tokyo, then won the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont last month by nearly six lengths in just his second start. Good as he looked, though, he is facing a vastly better bunch this time, and while his Peter Pan was a splendid effort for a second-time starter, it was not a particularly fast race.

I'm instead going to try Denis of Cork, the third choice at 12-1 on the morning line. Like Big Brown, he will making his sixth career start in the Belmont, and he comes into the race off a third-place Derby finish from which he has every right to improve. Last of 20 after moderate early fractions, he ran by 17 horses in the final half-mile. He has trained well since and seems poised for a step forward.

Tale of Ekati, the field's only Grade 1 winner besides the favorite, is worth a long look at a big price. He made a creditable middle move before flattening out in the Derby, he has strong juvenile form that he will run back to one of these days, and his natural speed could be an asset in a paceless field. If you're looking to light up the tote board, you could do worse than to throw in Ready's Echo, a head case of a colt who tends to lose contact with the field early and then launch a strong late run. If the 12 furlongs of the Belmont prove too long for the others, or some mid-race contention leaves the favorites staggering in midstretch, he will be along to pick up some pieces.

Strange things happen in the Belmont, and the best horse doesn't always win. The question isn't whether Big Brown is good enough to win the Triple Crown. Of course he is - but so were the four Hall of Famers (Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm) and six 3-year-old champions (Pleasant Colony, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones) who have tried and failed since Affirmed.