06/07/2001 12:00AM

'Goofy,' anachronistic, and full of pitfalls


WASHINGTON - Trainer Bob Baffert describes the Belmont Stakes as "a goofy race," and he surely has applied other adjectives to it as well. In the last four years he has watched both Silver Charm and Real Quiet bid for the Triple Crown, take the lead in the long Belmont Park stretch and get caught at the wire, blowing a $5 million bonus.

So even though his colt Point Given is the favorite Saturday, Baffert is keenly aware of the pitfall in his path. All of the other trainers know, too, that they are facing the great unknown: the 1 1/2-mile distance of the Belmont Stakes.

That distance is an anachronism in modern racing. Three-year-olds never run this far before the Belmont, and most will never run it again. Few American horses are bred to go 1 1/2 miles. And there is a great difference between the Kentucky Derby's 1 1/4-mile route and that of the Belmont. "That extra quarter-mile can really do some strange things," said John Ward, trainer of Monarchos, the principal challenger to Point Given. As a result, there can be no certainty before the race that a horse will be effective in the final leg of the Triple Crown.

Nevertheless, there are some valuable historical guidelines.

* A horse ought to have a fairly solid distance-running pedigree.

* It is helpful to have a prep race within two weeks of the Belmont. Horses who are fresh - such as those who have been laid off since the Kentucky Derby - rarely win, although Commendable did it last year.

* The 1 1/2-mile distance strongly favors horses with certain running styles - though they are not the styles that most fans would expect. Horses with tactical speed fare much better that habitual come-from behind runners. In 12 of the last 15 runnings, the eventual Belmont winner was never more than four lengths behind the leaders at any time.

Horses with even-paced styles are better suited to the Belmont than ones who seize command of a race with one big move. An explosive runner can win the Kentucky Derby this way - as Real Quiet did in 1998 - but when he makes the same move on the turn at Belmont Park, he still has a seemingly endless stretch run ahead of him.

Running styles may be especially crucial in Saturday's race, because there is a solitary speed horse in the field. Balto Star has abundant talent and has earned speed figures as good as Point Given's. He was a victim of the suicidal pace in the Kentucky Derby, but he will be able to set a measured pace - assuming that jockey Chris McCarron can slow him down. Balto Star would be a tempting bet, if only he had a different set of genes. But he is a son of the stallion Glitterman, a sprinter who sires mostly sprinters, and Balto Star's success at 1 1/8 miles has already stretched the limits of his pedigree potential. Even with an unchallenged lead, he is unlikely to survive 1 1/2 miles.

If Balto Star does set a slow pace, the winner is likely to be a rival who can sit close to him and take over when he fades - not one who charges from far behind. Of the nine horses in the field, the one who has good tactical speed, who can adapt to almost any situation, is the one who is probably the best horse anyway: Point Given.

Point Given won the Preakness with a strong move on the turn - not the right tactic for the Belmont - but he has shown that he can run effectively from any almost position. He pressed a solitary front-runner in the Santa Anita Derby and won that race smashingly. The only significant blemish on his record is his fifth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. But he proved that performance was an aberration when he raced wide all the way around the Pimlico track and won the Preakness, trouncing Monarchos and the others who had beaten him at Churchill Downs. He appears to have a pedigree well suited to the Belmont; his sire, Thunder Gulch, won the race in 1995, and his female lineage is infused with stamina, too.

In all of these respects, he seems to have an edge over his main rival. Monarchos has the style that so often wins the Kentucky Derby but fails in the Belmont - making a big, sweeping move on the turn. His pedigree is ambiguous, and even Ward acknowledged, "I've got reservations. Is he bred to go a mile and a half? We're going to see." Moreover, Monarchos gave such a lifeless performance in the Preakness that it would be hard for a handicapper (particularly this handicapper) to bet him with any confidence.

Point Given may get more of a challenge from the second- and fourth-place Preakness finishers, A P Valentine and Dollar Bill. A P Valentine is surely the horse best suited to the distance; his sire, his grandsire, and two of his great grandsires won the Belmont. Dollar Bill has encountered a staggering amount of trouble in his races this spring, but in the Preakness he overcame so much of it and he ran at least as well as Point Given.

Still, Point Given's overall record, versatility, and sharp current form suggest that he will end Baffert's record of frustration in the last leg of the Triple Crown. In order for him to be foiled, something pretty goofy will have to happen. My picks: 1. Point Given. 2. Dollar Bill. 3. A P Valentine.

? 2001, The Washington Post