06/03/2004 11:00PM

Litfin's Belmont Stakes analysis

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1 Rock Hard Ten
2 Smarty Jones
3 Eddington
4 Purge

Rock Hard Ten is 8-1 on the morning line, fitting for a colt who debuted four months ago and has been behind the 8-ball in seasoning ever since.

The seasoning is over. A 3-year-old who wins his first two starts in hand and drops a photo in the Santa Anita Derby is a horse to be reckoned with in any spot. In retrospect, missing the Kentucky Derby was a blessing in disguise. It gave Rock Hard Ten six weeks before the Preakness.

Lost in the hysteria over Smarty Jones's lengthy margin of victory was Rock Hard Ten's effort. He was out of sorts behind the gate and six wide leaving it, the worst thing that can happen on Pimlico's minimally banked layout. Yet he still launched a sharp move while remaining wide approaching the three-eighths pole, before angling in and finishing well. Only an extremely talented horse could have been second with that trip.

Can Rock Hard Ten make up nearly a dozen lengths? Strange things happen once-around Big Sandy. How superior did Alysheba look over Bet Twice? Bet Twice won by 14.

This may be a case of a second-ranked contender being the better bet. Rock Hard Ten has that Paulson run-all-day blood and is catching up rapidly in terms of experience. I will take 8-1.

Smarty Jones is perfect at eight distances, on five racetracks whether fast or wet, and the outcome has seldom been in doubt. Smarty Jones is a freak who already has outrun his pedigree, though, and it seems unlikely he can put forth another 118 at 1 1/2 miles, especially when the pace scenario is unclear.

Smarty Jones would like a target. So would Purge, whose only losses came as Smarty Jones's bull's-eye in his first two stakes (and his first two routes). Purge is unbeaten as a stalker. He relaxed nicely in the Peter Pan, and again just off a workmate last Monday. Todd Pletcher wants him to stalk in the Belmont.

So who goes to the front? Eddington has been most effective when sent right into the race early. Maybe that's how you get him to focus. Two very aggressive late-May workouts over this track strengthen the notion that he and the sport's top position rider, Jerry Bailey, are going for the lead this time.