06/07/2007 12:00AM

At even money or better, Curlin's a steal

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NEW YORK - The 139th Belmont Stakes will be run against a backdrop of worrisome developments - the absence of the Kentucky Derby winner, the likelihood of premature retirements for the division's leaders, and the uncertainty of the New York racing franchise past the end of this year. But at least for the seven hours and 40 minutes between first and last races at Belmont Park on Saturday, those clouds will recede for what promises to be a spectacular showcase of racing.

The 13-race Belmont card features eight stakes races, including three Grade 1's and three Grade 2's, and the 62 stakes entrants include 29 members of the triple-digit Beyer Speed Figure club and 11 Grade 1 winners: Better Talk Now, Bordonaro, Christmas Kid, English Channel, Evening Attire, Sky Conqueror, Stormello, and Wait a While on the undercard, as well as Curlin, Rags to Riches, and Tiago in the main event.

The five non-stakes races all drew fields of 12 or more, offering the possibility of parimutuel fireworks that may be absent from the high-rent events: The six Gradeo1 and 2 races that comprise the pick six could have as many as four formidable odds-on favorites in Bordonaro (True North), Wait a While (Just a Game), Dream Rush (Acorn), and Curlin.

Or maybe only three. When Street Sense was declared out of the race June 1, Curlin seemed likely to be 3-5 in the race, but both Belmont's Eric Donovan and Daily Racing Form's Mike Watchmaker have set a morning line of 6-5 on the Preakness winner. Much of that change comes from the late addition to the field of the outstanding filly Rags to Riches, the second choice on Watchmaker's line and the third, just behind Hard Spun, on Donovan's.

If Curlin repeats his Preakness effort, the rest of them are running for second money. This is a truly meteoric 3-year-old, a colt who did not even make his debut until Feb. 3 but could be a dual classic winner 18 weeks later. While he was a shaky proposition in the Derby, making just his fourth career start and facing top company for the first time, his Preakness was a masterpiece, running down a seemingly home-free horse of top quality in Street Sense. One could argue he's a steal at even money or better.

Still, funny things happen at the Belmont distance, though a filly ending up in the winner's circle hasn't been one of them since Tanya did it in 1905. Granted, only nine have tried it since, but Rags to Riches faces an uphill task trying to do what the Derby-winning fillies Genuine Risk and Winning Colors could not. On the other hand, we don't yet know how good she might be, and the Beyer of 104 she earned winning the Kentucky Oaks was better than the winning figure in three of the last seven Belmonts, including last year's triumph by her half-brother Jazil.

Hard Spun is a fast and consistent colt but remains a question mark at the distance despite a stout pedigree. His backers point to his strong second in the Derby and a possibly premature bid in the Preakness, while his detractors think he merely failed to stay on in both races. I will be playing him for a late fade but he's obviously dangerous if everyone waits too long to make a run at him.

Hard Spun is no bargain at 3-1, but Tiago and C P West are plausible alternatives at better prices for the upset-minded. Tiago had the same kind of learning experience in the Derby that Curlin did, galloped out impressively, and could be poised for a big move forward. C P West has been slow to run back to the potential he showed last fall but made a startling middle-move in the Preakness that hinted at looming improvement. Imawildandcrazyguy and Slew's Tizzy have repeatedly failed against top company and would have to improve sharply.

See them while you can. This Triple Crown season has accented how the cart of the commercial stallion industry is pulling the horse of racing, with Street Sense and Hard Spun already syndicated and unlikely to race beyond the end of this season. Curlin's future would probably be similarly prescribed if not for legal complications surrounding claims on his ownership. Until racing can find a way to persuade owners to race rather than retire these top colts, the Triple Crown races will continue to become something horses do toward the end, rather than the beginning, of their careers.