06/09/2004 11:00PM

My two cents' worth on Belmont Day


ELMONT, N.Y. - Things worth remembering, pondering, debating, revamping, reviewing, and tinkering with now that the dust has settled here at Belmont Park.

* Handicappers are unwise to be prejudiced about background when it is repeatedly made clear that good horses come from anywhere. Two years ago, the Belmont was won by Sarava, who lost his first three starts in Britain by 29 lengths. The last two Kentucky Derby and Preakness winners are New York-bred Funny Cide and Pennsylvania-bred Smarty Jones, whose first route win came in the dead of winter at Aqueduct. The first stakes on Belmont Day was won by 14-1 Board Elligible, an overachieving New York-bred who raced on Aqueduct's inner dirt track. So did Island Sand, the Acorn winner and Kentucky Oaks runner-up, whose last two works for the Acorn were recorded at Ellis Park.

* Birdstone's past performances stand as a shining example of how archaic track condition notations must be brought kicking and screaming into the 21st century. The track was listed as muddy for his debut win at Saratoga, but it was a drying-out surface that was harrowed, and it would have been considered by most experienced observers to be something more like good or even wet-fast. On the flip side, the track was listed as fast for his total non-effort in the Lane's End at Turfway Park, but it had just been sealed in anticipation of a thunderstorm and bore no resemblance to a standard fast track.

An (s) for sealed or an (h) for harrowed alongside the track condition would highlight these potentially important distinctions. Birdstone doesn't mind a little moisture in the track as long as it's not sealed. On harrowed tracks he is 4 for 5, the only loss a troubled-trip fifth in the Hopeful four weeks after his debut.

* It also would be nice, if only for history's sake, to know that the 36-1 winner and 27-1 show horse in the Belmont were the only ones equipped with mud calks. Earlier in the day, the Nick Zito-trained Seek Gold ($45.80) and 25-1 Spite the Devil finished one-two as the only calked horses in the first race. Throw in Board Elligible at $30 in the White Carnation, and the day's three longest-priced dirt winners all wore calks, as did Bogota Bill, the winner of the 13th race.

* The Belmont Stakes was the linchpin of two pick fours that encompassed six races, the first an all-stakes sequence with a $1 million guarantee. Birdstone, of course, was the missing link in both, and he triggered payoffs of exceptional value when measured against the win parlays.

The first pick four began innocently enough, with Intercontinental ($3.40), second choice Fire Slam ($7.60), and fourth choice Meteor Storm ($14). But Birdstone anchored a $2 payoff of $7,309 that was more than twice the parlay ($3,346).

The second pick four began with Meteor Storm and Birdstone, and ended with the chalky pair of Hawksbill ($3.60) and Bogota Bill ($4). Even so, the $6,062 payoff was well over three times the parlay ($1,864).

Lessons from those signers: It is entirely possible to get terrific value in the pick four even when singling an odds-on choice, and even if two favorites win. Two chalks are the cut-off point, however. Combinations that include three favorites should be avoided, unless one is lukewarm or "hidden" (a first-time starter later in the mix) and there is a universal single (3-5 or lower) in the fourth leg you are trying to beat with a spread.

When and how you spread are the big keys. Many could not have hit either pick four without making the decision to spread in the Belmont in the first place. Once the decision to spread is made, bear in mind that races where you feel the need to go four or five deep are usually the ones where you really need to use seven or eight, or perhaps even all runners. When you get beat in a legitimate spread situation, you should be able to look back afterward and still feel there was no possible way to use the upstart. Using that approach, a pick four play looking to spread against Smarty Jones in the Belmont would have absolutely - repeat, absolutely - required the inclusion of Birdstone, a Grade 1 winner over the track and one of only two other graded stakes winners in the field.

* According to the Beyer Figures, Commendable's Belmont was ranked as faster (101) than Smarty Jones's (100), and that is difficult to fathom after comparing their mile and 10-furlong fractions - 1:39.11 and 2:05.13 for Commendable versus 1:35.44 and 2:00.52 for Smarty Jones.

Granted, the track was fast enough to produce a track record earlier on the card. But even taking that into account, the figure (a tough one to make because the first half-mile takes place on a section of the track hardly ever used) doesn't give Smarty Jones enough credit for running the first 10 furlongs so strongly, even if it is dead-on.

In historical context, Smarty Jones's mile and 10-furlong fractions were faster than those recorded by the likes of Point Given (1:35.56 and 2:00.76), Skip Away (1:35.80 and 2:02), and even Easy Goer (1:35.80 and 2:00.80). Only two runnings in the past 20 years had a faster mile, and only one had a faster 10-furlong time.

Smarty Jones will never run 12 furlongs again. This is an instance where do-it-yourself practitioners may opt to rate his effort based on the 10-furlong time, which, after all, is 83.3 percent of the race and undoubtedly a truer evaluation of his effort as it will pertain to subsequent races.

This technique can also be used in everyday situations, even in much shorter races, as when a horse is cutting back from a mile or seven furlongs to a six-furlong race after setting or forcing a fast pace and tiring in the late stages. Extracting a six-furlong figure from the longer race and forgiving the late fade often proves quite relevant when these horses turn back.