06/03/2002 11:00PM

A jewel that has eluded the master

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ELMONT, N.Y.- - The first time Allen Jerkens allowed himself to mumble the name of Puzzlement in the same sentence as "Belmont Stakes" was last March 30 at Gulfstream Park.

"He just broke his maiden," Jerkens said. "I liked the way he did it. I figured, if he kept improving, maybe if the Belmont came up ordinary . . . only it didn't come up so ordinary, did it?"

No, the 2002 Belmont is far from ordinary. This is not the typical Triple Crown anticlimax, with Derby and Preakness horses scattered and weak, leaving the third leg to a colt who is all but forgotten by Monday morning.

War Emblem's attempt to become the 12th Triple Crown winner has focused the game on Saturday's running. In the process, his opposition has been reduced to the role of spoilers and party-poopers. In some quarters, it is downright un-American not to root for War Emblem.

It is also a grave injustice that Allen Jerkens does not have a Belmont Stakes trophy rattling around somewhere in his collection. Jerkens without a Belmont is the rough equivalent of Ernie Banks never playing in a World Series, Sam Snead never winning the U.S. Open, or Richard Burton getting shut out for an Oscar.

Neither has the 73-year-old Jerkens won a Derby nor a Preakness, but that's different.

Those are nice little races run somewhere other than New York. The Belmont is the big one in Allen's own backyard.

"I never really paid much attention to them if I wasn't running," Jerkens said this week, which makes sense, because he rarely pays much attention to anything other than his own string of horses.

Now Jerkens was standing in front of stall 7, on the front side of his Belmont barn 30, better known as "the hacienda." Puzzlement had his head over the webbing, nipping and stretching his neck, as his groom rubbed a shine into the colt's dark bay hindquarters. A Mexican ballad blared from a radio perched on a lightswitch outside the stall.

"Don't spend too much time doing that," Jerkens told the groom. "You don't want to get him edgy. Does he like that music?"

Jerkens move on to the next stall, but not before gently pulling the plug on the radio. The trainer glanced back over his shoulder at Puzzlement.

"He's come a long way in a short time," he said. "But he's a clever horse. I just hope I haven' t screwed it up."

Jerkens has spent most of his life trying to convince people he's not a genius. He should give up. There is too much evidence to the contrary. He has a knack of getting the right horse in the right race on the right day (Onion, Prove Out, Beau Purple, Wagon Limit, to name the obvious), which is why few would be truly surprised if Puzzlement jumps up to give War Emblem a tussle on Saturday.

If the colt were in any other hands, Puzzlement's Belmont participation would be dismissed as a pipe dream. He lost twice before winning that March 30 maiden race, won an allowance race at Aqueduct, and then finished second to Sunday Break in the Peter Pan Stakes on May 25 with a strong finish.

Even Jerkens, the hopeful pessimist, offered a warning for his fans. "Just because a horse is closing, doesn't mean he can get a distance," he said.

Jerkens has tried the Belmont three times before. Strange things happened each time. In 1993, Virginia Rapids had to work around the broken down Prairie Bayou before finishing fifth. In 1998, Limit Out's saddle slipped and he went from third early to far back. In 1999, Best of Luck came from far back to be fourth, while Charismatic was breaking down in third.

"Didn't Eddie Yowell win the Belmont with a couple horses who weren't supposed to win?" Jerkens said, drawing on the name of an old friend.

Yes, it was Yowell who won with third choice Hail to All in 1965, and then saddled Pass Catcher for a $71 shock in 1971. Jerkens asks questions when he already knows the answer because he wants to make a quiet point and he's too polite to rub it in.

"We didn't really name Puzzlement for Allen, but we should have," said Joseph Shields, the vice chairman of the New York Racing Association who bred the colt in Florida from a mating of Preakness winner Pine Bluff and the Sir Ivor mare Taine.

Jerkens and Shields go back to the 1960's when they were polo-playing pals.

"I respect him because he takes his time," Shields said. "I don't run many 2-year-olds. I'd like to see them run the classic distances and have them around when they are 4 and 5."

Puzzlement will be a longshot on Saturday, even with Jerkens on his side. Shields isn't kidding himself.

"I know I've got the best trainer in the field," Shields said. "As for the rest, who knows?

"There are three races I've always wanted to win more than any," he added. "Allen already gave me a Jockey Club Gold Cup with Wagon Limit. The others are the Travers and Belmont, and I'd love to see Allen win a Belmont. More than anything, it would be right for racing."