06/04/2004 12:00AM

Free's Belmont Stakes analysis


1 Smarty Jones
2 Rock Hard Ten
3 Purge
4 Caiman

No horse is invincible, not even Smarty Jones. Yet the unbeaten colt has remained in peak condition while training under public scrutiny; his Grade 1 class is irrefutable following decisive Derby-Preakness wins; his last four Beyer figures exceed the 106 Belmont par; and he faces only one other front-runner. Smarty Jones could be loose on the lead.

The knock on Smarty Jones is low odds: his probable $2 win payoff is peanuts at about $2.60. The risk is a lot greater than the potential reward. The wagering dilemma is finding a sensible alternative. Unfortunately, the horse with the second-best chance may also be an underlay.

He is Rock Hard Ten, who ran huge in the Preakness, which was his first start in six weeks. He raced six wide most of the trip, loomed menacingly nearing the stretch, and then flattened out. The effort was a lot better than the modest 100 Beyer, and subsequent works suggest Rock Hard Ten will do what the last six Belmont winners did - improve an average of four to six points from their previous start. A fair win price on Rock Hard Ten would be 8-1. Anything less will be considered an underlay.

Purge was twice drilled by the favorite. But as the only other Belmont front-runner, Purge would be the likely beneficiary if unforeseen chaos befell the favorite. Off a giant 108 Beyer two weeks ago, Purge has a shot. A fair-value price is 10-1. The odds requirements are severe; each of the top three picks might be an underlay. Still, there may be a way to make money.

Caiman is the knockout. He beat older two straight at Hawthorne, and meets a mostly ordinary 3-year-old group. Caiman will be finishing and could easily hit the board. A "bottom up" trifecta strategy is recommended by keying Caiman to finish third, using five others in the runner-up spot - Rock Hard Ten, Purge, Eddington, Birdstone and Master David - and keying Smarty Jones to win. At $2 each, the total cost of the trifecta play is only $10. Can a Triple Crown be won by an odds-on favorite and bettors still make money? Yes, if clunk-up closer Caiman hits the board. He might do exactly that.

Birdstone and Master David should be close to a tepid pace; Eddington used the Preakness as a prep race, and should improve. Royal Assault and Tap Dancer appear too slow.