06/04/2007 12:00AM

Maybe 'grueling' is the wrong word


NEW YORK - Although it certainly wasn't a surprise to anyone with the ability to read the writing on the wall, the decision by Street Sense's people to pass Saturday's Belmont Stakes was still disappointing. That is the inevitable conclusion anytime you're talking about a Kentucky Derby winner who lost the Preakness by inches declining to participate in the final leg of the Triple Crown for any reason other than health.

At the same time, while the path now planned for Street Sense might not be the greatest for the game, it is an understandable one, since there no longer is the possibility of a Triple Crown winner. Street Sense will now be pointed to the Travers Stakes with one prep race likely beforehand. If that prep comes in the Haskell Invitational, Street Sense will be going for the lion's share of the same $1 million purse he would have been shooting for in the Belmont, plus he has the chance to be a slightly fresher animal for the second half of the season.

Left unsaid in the instance of Street Sense, but always implied when a major player in the first two legs of the Triple Crown passes on the Belmont, is that the Belmont's 1o1/2 miles will extract a greater toll on the horses who compete in it than a conventional race would. It is true that in today's game, the Belmont Stakes is the only time in a horse's life that he will be asked to compete going 1 1/2 miles on the dirt. And it seems that every time the distance of the Belmont is mentioned, it is preceded by the adjective "grueling."

But how grueling is the Belmont Stakes, really? There is a contrarian belief that the Belmont might actually be less demanding than other distance events because the early pace is often much more forgiving than it is in other top-class stakes events. In fact, a reasonable argument could be made that even though the Kentucky Derby is a quarter of a mile shorter than the Belmont, the Derby is the more grueling race if for no other reason than the early pace in the Derby is almost always scorching.

The best way, however, to determine the Belmont's aftereffects is to look at how the modern-day Thoroughbreds who ran well in it did in subsequent races. So that's what I did. I looked up the post-Belmont Stakes careers of the 21 horses who finished first, second, or third in the seven Belmonts since 2000, and the results, while certainly open to different interpretation, were interesting.

Those 21 horses have made 139 starts since competing in the Belmont for an average of 6.6 starts per horse, which isn't bad. Some might say that the 28 starts Funny Cide has made since finishing third in the 2003 Belmont skews the numbers. Remember, Funny Cide, being a gelding, has no breeding value. But it is reasonable to counter that Funny Cide's totals are balanced by the two starts Point Given made after winning the 2001 Belmont, the one start Empire Maker made after winning the 2003 Belmont, and the zero starts Smarty Jones made after finishing second in the 2004 Belmont. In the particular cases of Point Given, Empire Maker, and Smarty Jones, they had already become so extremely valuable as stallion prospects that there was almost no incentive to allow them the time to recover from typical wear and tear racing issues and continue campaigning them.

For the record, these 21 horses who made the 139 post-Belmont Stakes starts have recorded 30 victories for a win rate of 21.6 percent. That isn't great, but the drag on these numbers can be attributed to the fact that Funny Cide, who has won 5 of 28 starts since his Belmont, wasn't the superstar many hoped he was, and that several others were horses of limited ability: Sarava, 0 for 8 after engineering the biggest upset in Belmont Stakes history in 2002; Royal Assault, 2 for 14 since finishing third in the 2004 Belmont; Andromeda's Hero, 2 for 17 after finishing second in the 2005 Belmont; and Nolan's Cat, 2 for 9 after finishing third in the 2005 Belmont.

More revealing is the fact that eight of the 21 horses in my sample group - more than a third - went on to win Grade 1 races after the Belmont. Those horses were Bluegrass Cat, Birdstone, Ten Most Wanted, Funny Cide, Medaglia d'Oro, Point Given, Aptitude, and Unshaded.

Perhaps most interesting of all, is that nine of the 21 in our sample group rebounded well enough from running well in the Belmont Stakes to have started in the Travers, the race Street Sense will point for after passing the Belmont. These nine horses were Bluegrass Cat, Andromeda's Hero, Birdstone, Ten Most Wanted, Medaglia d'Oro, Point Given, A P Valentine, Commendable, and Unshaded. Moreover, five of these nine - Birdstone, Ten Most Wanted, Medaglia d'Oro, Point Given, and Unshaded - were so unaffected by the supposed grueling distance of the Belmont that they won the Travers.

Of course, each horse is an individual with different constitutions and recuperative powers, just as no two Belmont Stakes are identical in terms of degree of difficulty. But the results of recent Belmonts show that the final leg of the Triple Crown is not the debilitating career-sucker a lot of people think it is.