06/08/2005 12:00AM

A mile and a half left to travel

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Afleet Alex, Salomon Diego aboard, hits the Belmont track Wednesday. In addition to jogging and galloping, he went to the paddock that morning.

ELMONT, N.Y. - The end is in sight. Just one more lap and the 3-year-old class of 2005 can breathe easy.

For these young horses, the Triple Crown can be as daunting as Donner Pass, requiring three tough races over three completely different playing fields in a span of just 35 days. This year, only Preakness winner Afleet Alex and Derby winner Giacomo will try all three, culminating in their showdown on Saturday in the 137th Belmont Stakes.

"It's the nature of the game," said Frank Brothers, who won the 1991 Preakness and Belmont with Hansel. "All the traveling is just another of the many things these horses have to take in stride. It's what makes the Triple Crown so tough."

Relative abilities and physical condition aside, neither Afleet Alex nor Giacomo would appear to have an advantage based on external circumstance. For both colts, the entire Triple Crown experience has been a road trip, since Afleet Alex lives in Delaware and Giacomo calls California home. Giacomo got to go back to his Hollywood Park stall between the Preakness and the Belmont, while Afleet Alex stayed put at Pimlico until last weekend - which simply means that the Derby winner had to endure one more cross-country commute, while the Preakness hero had to deal with the New Jersey Turnpike. Call it a push.

"With these type of horses, you are almost compelled to ship around a lot - and not just in the Triple Crown," said trainer Nick Zito, who will try to win his second straight Belmont with either Pinpoint, Indy Storm, or Andromeda's Hero. "The trick is having a horse left when it's over, because you'll never run out of good races to run them in."

Zito has taken a number of colts through all three Triple Crown events, including Derby winners Strike the Gold and Go for Gin, Belmont runner-up A P Valentine, Louis Quatorze, and Stephen Got Even.

"There's things we do now that we didn't when I first started," Zito said. "Vitamin supplements, fluids, and the like. But then there's a lot you can't control. Do I have an advantage bringing my horses down from Saratoga for the Belmont over Giacomo, who comes from California? We're all coming into this 90-degree weather."

From the frigid mornings in Louisville to New York's sudden heat wave, this season's Triple Crown vagabonds have had an especially bumpy road. Not only have there been the usual temptations to race far and wide in a variety of rich preps earlier in the year, but there were also viral outbreaks in Florida, Kentucky, and New York that triggered quarantines and sometimes kept trainers from traveling when they wanted to.

Add to that the imposition of a six-hour holding barn for all Belmont Park starters - instituted by the New York Racing Association this spring - and even the idea of a locally trained horse with a home-court advantage for the Belmont Stakes would seem to be fading factor in handicapping the race.

"The detention barn is just like shipping," said New York trainer Sal Russo, who will be starting Peter Pan Stakes runner-up Reverberate in the Belmont. "It takes something out of them. Your horse is over there for six hours. You've taken him out of his environment. It's not like putting the bridle on him and leading him over there.

"All you can do is hope they accept it. He [Reverberate] has been over there a couple times already, so he knows it. But the first time he didn't like it at all. They had shavings in the stall instead of straw, which is what he's used to, and he got to snorting around - probably had a filly in there the day before."

Other than that, Russo said, "It's always an advantage to be at home, the track you train over. But the very, very good horse overcomes anything."

Hansel was beginning to look like one of them during the spring of 1991 when he reeled off victories in the Jim Beam and the Lexington leading up to the Triple Crown. His failure as the firm favorite in the Kentucky Derby prompted Brothers to depart from the traditional practice of heading straight to Pimlico, instead packing him back to the trainer's established stable at Arlington Park.

"I wasn't about to go on to the next one before I satisfied myself as to why he didn't show up in the Derby," Brothers said this week from Kentucky. "You get to Pimlico, you might start lying to yourself and thinking, well, as long as you're there, you might as well run. I'm not a might-as-well kind of guy."

Hansel answered his trainer's questions and was shipped to Baltimore the day before the Preakness. He won in a romp, flew back to Chicago, then trained in New York in the week leading up to his victory in the Belmont Stakes. For Brothers, it was a bittersweet accomplishment with a colt who was clearly the best of his generation. Two classics was nice, but the big one got away.

"Winning the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes that year was one of the greatest thrills of my life," the trainer said. "But if you want to talk about trading two for one, yeah, I'd rather have had the Derby."