06/04/2002 11:00PM

Lukas tries out the spoiler's role

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Last summer, when a particularly fallow period for trainer D. Wayne Lukas ended with a victory by Scorpion in the Jim Dandy Stakes, a newsletter distributed at Saratoga marked the occasion with a caricature of Lukas, inside of a coffin, propping open the lid with the caption, "I ain't dead yet."

That might very well be Lukas's motto heading into Saturday's Belmont Stakes. His colt Proud Citizen has run two strong, but losing, efforts against War Emblem in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, and he appears to be the most logical upsetter as War Emblem seeks to become the 12th Triple Crown winner.

Lukas is in a different role from the last time a horse tried to win the Triple Crown with a victory in the Belmont Stakes. In 1999, Lukas-trained Charismatic scored upset victories in both the Derby and Preakness, but suffered a career-ending injury when third in the Belmont.

Although War Emblem will be an overwhelming favorite, there have been numerous occasions in recent years where an arch-rival avenged Derby and Preakness losses with a Belmont victory. In 1969, with Majestic Prince seeking a Triple Crown sweep, Arts and Letters spoiled the party. Bet Twice ran second to Alysheba in the Derby and Preakness in 1987, before scoring a runaway victory in the Belmont. Easy Goer scored his lone victory against Sunday Silence in the 1989 Belmont. And in 1998, Victory Gallop nailed Real Quiet right on the line.

Proud Citizen comes into the Belmont having finished second in the Derby, and third - after a wide trip - in the Preakness. He arrived at Belmont Park on Wednesday, after a flight from Kentucky, and appeared to be in excellent condition as he grazed.

"He's doing well in that area," Lukas said. "He's got a little more muscle tone than the first two races. He's handled it well. His weight is excellent.

"Hopefully he's going to move forward. If you listen to the sheet players, the gurus, the numbers say that these two," Lukas said, referring to Proud Citizen and War Emblem, "have the best numbers."

There are other numbers on Lukas's side. He has won 13 Triple Crown races; no one has won more. And he has had a particularly good strike rate in the Belmont, with four victories - Tabasco Cat, Thunder Gulch, Editor's Note, and Commendable - from 16 starters.

"The mile and a half is a little gray area," Lukas said. "I don't know if anybody has complete, uninhibited confidence. But I do know this horse, with his second and third dams, is bred to stay. I've won this thing four times, three times with horses people said couldn't run that far. Editor's Note was the only one they thought could run that far."

Proud Citizen, a son of Gone West, owns just two victories in eight starts. He won a maiden race at Belmont Park last June 28, and this year won the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland.

"Proud Citizen does like the Belmont surface. That should help us," Lukas said.

Proud Citizen has made great progress this spring after returning from minor knee surgery. Lukas thought Proud Citizen was a top Derby prospect, but his late start this spring has forced Lukas to play catch-up. Proud Citizen did not make his first start of the year until April 6, when he was thrown into the Santa Anita Derby, a race for which he was clearly not ready. But Lukas maintained the race was a means to an end, and since finishing seventh in the Santa Anita Derby, Proud Citizen has developed rapidly.

Two weeks after the Santa Anita Derby, he won the Lexington. And then two weeks later, he was second in the Derby.

"We felt we had to have everything fall into place in the Derby," Lukas said. "In the short amount of time, we didn't have the luxury of extra works or prep races. We felt it was a great effort on his part. He dropped in and beat every horse but one."

Two weeks later, Proud Citizen tried War Emblem again. He finished third in the Preakness, but was fanned wide on both turns, particularly the first.

"I thought he had a legitimate excuse," said jockey Mike Smith, who has ridden Proud Citizen in his last three starts. "The turns at Pimlico aren't banked, so when you're six or seven wide, you're out there. It certainly cost him at least second."

"I think he ran a hell of race in the Preakness. You can't have that type of trip and win a Grade 1," said Lukas, whose selection of post 12, outside several speed horses, contributed to Proud Citizen's trip.

The Belmont, encompassing one lap of majestic Belmont Park, should have less potential for excuses than the previous two Triple Crown races.

"Historically it's a clean race," Lukas said. "You've got the sweeping turns, and a smaller field. It's a formful race."

It is also, however, the end of a grueling journey. Proud Citizen is one of just three horses who will run in all three legs of the Triple Crown. The others, Medaglia d'Oro and War Emblem, had a better-spaced foundation this spring prior to the Derby.

"In my case, it's been aggravated a little more, because he's been running every two weeks," Lukas said. "This time, he's got an extra week. We're still playing catch-up."