05/10/2007 12:00AM

Here's what you may have missed at Belmont


ELMONT, N.Y. - While all the hoopla in Louisville was going on, a little racetrack on the Queens/Long Island border kicked off its 60-day spring/summer session amid far less fanfare. If you had a severe case of Derby Fever, here's a quick review of what you missed from opening week at Belmont Park.

* Back in the day, most handicapping systems began with the rule, "Must have started within the past 30 days," and there were even some spot play methods that keyed on horses returning in 14 days or sooner. In a sign of the times, no fewer than four winners on opening day made their first starts since 2006: Operation Red Dawn ($8), Thunderestimate ($3.60), and Redefined ($15.20) had last raced at Saratoga last summer; Utopia ($6.80) was a come-again winner of the Westchester Handicap while making his first start since taking the 2006 Godolphin Mile 14 months earlier. Behind Redefined (a horse for course who is 5 for 9 on Belmont turf and winless from 17 starts elsewhere), two of the remaining superfecta components, Kennel Up and Bon Marie, hadn't run since October.

* If you're playing horses to go wire to wire in turf routes, they had better be able to slow things down early. Among 10 routes on the Widener course opening week, not one pacesetter was able to finish the job, and six winners were no better than fifth early. Two of seven routes on the inner turf were won wire to wire: Factual Contender got loose through a first quarter in 25.20 seconds, shook off Pictavia to build a commanding lead through midstretch, and needed most of it to keep fast-closing Hostess at bay in a $65,000 overnight stakes. The other front-running winner was Vision of Sunrise, who somehow secured a six-length lead through a first quarter in 26.20 seconds under Norberto Arroyo Jr., thereby stealing a 1 1/16-mile maiden race in broad daylight.

* Teammate, the runner-up in the Alabama and Gazelle, was still eligible for a second-level allowance, but made her first start as a 4-year-old in a tougher third-level condition at seven furlongs. Teammate had to work hard to prevail by a neck over a stubborn Yachats and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 89. Considering it was her first start in six months and at a distance well short of her best, it bodes well - especially since Fiery Pursuit was able to win the Grade 2 Louisville Breeders' Cup with a moderate Beyer of 97 at Churchill Downs the next day.

* Last year, Gary Contessa came very close to Frank Martin's record of 156 winners in New York, set in 1974. With 64 winners through just a little more than four months of the 2007 season, Contessa is on a record-setting pace and topped the standings with four wins opening week. Three of them came on last Friday's card, including an eye-catching performance by Papi Chullo, who was acquired by Winning Move Stable following a last-place finish in the Oaklawn Handicap.

The 5-year-old Papi Chullo has always had talent - he recorded a 108 Beyer winning his first start last year - but has had what can most charitably be described as an unorthodox career to this point: After a maiden win at Belmont in July 2005, eight of his next 11 starts came in graded stakes, along with a start in the Sunshine Millions. Sensibly dropped into a third-level allowance at 1 1/16 miles, Papi Chullo stalked the leaders to the stretch, slipped through inside, and widened away powerfully in 1:39.89, a mere 0.38 second off the track record. Papi Chullo got a 105 Beyer for the effort, one point lower than Utopia's Westchester.

* Rags to Riches is obviously the top 3-year-old filly in training, and Magnificience was awesome before going to the sidelines, but the division has another freakishly good one in Dream Rush, who could not have been more impressive winning the Grade 2 Nassau County Breeders' Cup at seven furlongs with a 102 Beyer.

According to the American Racing Manual, the first 10 runnings of the Nassau County produced a Beyer par of just under 93. Last year, Hello Liberty won it with a 97 and came back to finish second by a neck in the Grade 1 Acorn. Dream Rush now has four wins (by a combined 22 lengths) in five starts, the only loss was a brutal trip first time out this year, and trainer Rick Violette Jr. has her targeted to the Acorn on Belmont Stakes Day. The way she broke so sharply and then immediately relaxed on the lead, she will be extremely difficult to beat in that spot.