05/19/2004 11:00PM

Horses on or near lead have edge at Belmont

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Now that it's all Smarty Jones all the time, nobody really expects any challengers of significance to come out of Saturday's Peter Pan Stakes to deny the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner a place in history.

But even if there are no Coastals in this year's Peter Pan, this 10-horse renewal of the sometimes-key Belmont prep still came up a terrific betting race. Who the favorite will be is anybody's guess, and whoever it is probably will be lukewarm, at around 4-1 or so.

Don't get me wrong, the Belmont Stakes is a must-see this year because it's looking like 1-5 that history will be made. In terms of betting the Belmont, though, the best money-making strategy might consist of putting some win tickets in picture frames and hoping that 1-5 appreciates to 3-5.

In the Peter Pan the possibilities are much less clear, and potentially much more rewarding. The only graded-stakes winners in the field are Sinister G, who wired the Lane's End at 16-1 on a freshly sealed "fast" track at Turfway Park, and Friends Lake, who wore down the leaders in the Florida Derby at 37-1 on a track many observers felt had been inadequately watered.

Master David and Swingforthefences, the second and fourth finishers in the Wood Memorial, figure to attract some support, as might Consecrate, if you're willing to throw out his Wood and go back to his three prior races, all of which appear competitive figurewise.

At least one thing is clear about the 1 1/8-mile Peter Pan: According to the way one-turn routes out of the Belmont chute have played so far this spring, there is a 93 percent chance that the winner will either have the lead, or be within two lengths of the lead at the pace call.

That's quite a stat, and it makes for a powerful elimination tool in Belmont routes. Much ado is often made of Big Sandy's vast expanse, so it is not perceived as being in the same league as Gulfstream and Keeneland as being highly favorable to horses with positional speed. Yet, that is exactly the case. The only noticeable difference is that Gulfstream and Keeneland tend to promote inside speed, but very often at Belmont it is the outside that offers the paths of least resistance.

Here is the track-profile rundown for races at a mile and longer out of the chute, from opening day through this past Wednesday:

One mile: Nine races so far have produced seven winners (!) who led at the pace call, which at this distance is the quarter pole. The remaining two were each within one length at that point.

Mile and one-sixteenth: From the 17-race sample at press time for this article, six winners led at the pace call, which at this distance is the five-sixteenths pole. However, 13 of 17 winners led or were within a half-length of the lead, and 15 of 17 were within two lengths. The two exceptions, Haughty Lady and Run Baron Run, both won maiden races, and the former was even money in a field of six.

Mile and one-eighth: Only four races have been run at the Peter Pan distance so far. Three of the winners led at the pace call, which at this distance is the three-eighths pole. The remaining winner was two lengths off the pace.

Lumping the three distances together yields 30 races all told, with 16 winners who led at the pace call, and 28 who either led or were within two lengths - 93.3 percent.

Two lightly raced runners, Purge and Pies Prospect, fit the profile nicely.

Purge has the look of a colt who was always cut out to be a runner. He won his debut at Saratoga by four lengths, and returned during the winter to win a first-level allowance at Gulfstream by three. From there, Todd Pletcher, who expertly spots his stock most of the time, mapped out what at the time seemed like a logical plan: Avoid the major preps and the leading Triple Crown contenders in Florida, Kentucky, and New York, and fly under the radar in Oaklawn Park's Rebel Stakes.

In retrospect it was sort of like General Custer looking over the range and saying, "They look like friendly Indians," because Purge could not have been maneuvered into a tougher spot. Considering it was his first stakes start and his first start beyond six furlongs, Purge did exceptionally well to set the pace and finish a clear second behind Smarty Jones.

I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for his fade in the Arkansas Derby just three weeks later, considering the quick three-week turnaround and the muddy track.

Pies Prospect, meanwhile, was an impressive debut winner at Aqueduct last fall with an 80 Beyer, but he looked like Nick Zito's fourth-stringer in his three subsequent starts. He showed some improvement back at the Big A on Wood Day by finishing second to the Pletcher-trained Shaniko and surpassing his debut Beyer with an 85, but then made a quantum leap opening day at Belmont to win his first-level condition with a 101 - a faster figure than what was earned in many of this year's marquee preps.

For purposes of comparison, the splits from Pies Prospect's opening-day allowance at 1 1/16 miles were 45.90 seconds, 1:10.76, 1:36.09, and 1:42.62. Two races later, the one-mile Westchester Handicap for older males was won by Gygistar through splits of 47.54, 1:11.64, and 1:35.89.

The key question with Pies Prospect is whether he can run similarly well on just 16 days' rest, but as Smarty Jones showed last week, talented 3-year-olds sometimes have the wherewithal to run effectively on short rest, and very often a major step forward should simply be accepted at face value.