10/23/2005 11:00PM

Fit for the top of the heap


ELMONT, N.Y. - For us country folk, the Big Apple can be pretty intimidating. Everything is either very tall, very loud, or very expensive. People are angry, in a hurry, and dressed so much better than the rest of us.

Comedian Fred Allen once cracked that "everywhere outside New York City is Bridgeport, Connecticut," which was his way of saying that New York was like no place else, so don't bother to try. Johnny Carson defined New York as "an exciting town where something is happening all the time, most of it unsolved."

Leave it to Garrison Keillor, though, to nail down New York's giddy encouragement for all things excessive.

"One day," Keillor wrote, "Donald Trump will discover that he is owned by Lutheran Brotherhood and must re-negotiate his debt load with a committee of silent Norwegians who don't understand why anyone would pay more than $120 for a suit."

Only in New York does an afternoon of racing worth $14 million seem par for the course. But sometimes it takes a swing through New York to impress upon the rest of the world the sincerity of an endeavor. And so, for the fifth time, the Breeders' Cup comes to town, bearing down on century-old Belmont Park, where it will pay homage to the Thoroughbred racehorse this coming Saturday in eight definitive acts.

Winning a Breeders' Cup race is special. Winning a Breeders' Cup race at Belmont Park adds an extra layer of pride. For most of the people who play the game, Belmont has always been the city on the hill, with membership discouraged for all but the best.

"Through the years I was always in and out of there with a horse or so, when I thought I had one who deserved to run there," said Frankie Brothers, who will be running the favored First Samurai in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

"For a lot of years I'd get up there across the Hudson," Brothers continued, "and I'd find out in fact that I did not have a horse good enough to run there."

Brothers has played the big rooms before, ranging far beyond his Louisiana roots. His first big horse was Hansel, who came to town in June 1991 after winning the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico.

"To tell you the truth, Hansel might have been my first win at Belmont," Brothers said, "and he was all out to win. But at least it was the Belmont Stakes that he won. That's why it was so very nice to win the Champagne with First Samurai. In my mind, that's one of our most prized 2-year-old races."

For all his near Hall of Fame achievements, Alex Solis could use a few more Belmont baubles to decorate his record. He has his best chance on Saturday in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf with Megahertz, coming some 22 years after his Belmont Park debut.

"I was riding Current Hope for Roger Laurin, and he asked me to come ride him in the Belmont Stakes," said Solis, a wide-eyed 19-year-old at the time, fresh from the Panama countryside.

"I loved it from the start," Solis said. "There was a lot of room, and you had to be very patient. With my style, that made it a very comfortable track for me to ride."

Bob Bone, the owner of Breeders' Cup Classic contender Choctaw Nation, has been to Belmont Park exactly once in his life. Give him credit, though. He picked the right day.

As a young teenager living in upstate New York, near Saratoga Springs, Bone became a diehard racing fan. He worked summers at Saratoga Race Course and followed his favorite horses, chief among them Affirmed. Bone was on hand to see Affirmed win the Sanford and Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga during the summer of 1977.

Bone was also a decent young athlete, but in early June of 1978, he suffered the disappointment of being cut from his junior high school basketball squad.

"I was devastated, like any kid would be," Bone said. "My dad felt so bad for me, he asked if there was anything he could do. It was the week before the Belmont Stakes, so I told him that if he took me to see Affirmed and Alydar run in the Belmont, it might help."

Dad came through. On June 10, 1978, Bone and his father were among the 65,417 on hand for the final Triple Crown showdown between Affirmed and Alydar.

"The one thing I remember most is when they were coming down the stretch, it was like an earthquake," Bone recalled. "I was way up high in the grandstand, and the stands were shaking so much I almost got a little scared they would come down. I remember yelling something to my dad, and he couldn't hear me, even though he was sitting right next to me. It was that loud.

"I was already hooked on horse racing," Bone added. "But after that day, the hook was set forever. I've never been back to Belmont, and I've never experienced anything like that first trip. Who knows, though. I just might be able to top that high on Saturday."