06/05/2006 12:00AM

New role, same intensity for Walden

Eight years after he trained Victory Gallop to a second-place finish in the Belmont, Elliott Walden has a rooting interest in Bluegrass Cat.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Elliott Walden's role in the game has changed, but the charge he gets in seeing a horse he's associated with having a shot to win a big race has not. On Saturday, Walden hopes to rekindle the emotions of 1998, when he trained Victory Gallop to an upset of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Real Quiet in one of the more memorable Belmont Stakes of recent times.

Walden, 43, gave up training horses 11 months ago to become the racing manager for the WinStar Farm operation of Kenny Troutt and Bill Casner. WinStar is the owner and breeder of Bluegrass Cat, the likely favorite for Saturday's 138th Belmont Stakes.

"I know if this horse comes down the stretch and he's in front, I'm going to feel as good as if I trained him,'' Walden said recently.

Walden did train Bluegrass Cat for his first race, an eighth-place finish from which the colt emerged with sore shins. Though he was very high on Bluegrass Cat, Walden had already decided to change careers, giving up his position as a private trainer for WinStar.

In his new role, Walden works with WinStar's 10 trainers in deciding where and when to run the outfit's horses. Walden said the objective is "to make WinStar a top-three stallion facility.'' WinStar already stands Speightstown, Tiznow, Distorted Humor, and Victory Gallop.

"I obviously enjoyed training and didn't leave it without much thought,'' said Walden, who won 1,017 races during his 21-year training career. "It was something that was a very difficult decision. This is such a unique opportunity to be involved with a great farm, and I felt like this position with WinStar is something that could be a long-term thing that would allow me some freedoms that being a trainer you don't have.''

Before going private with WinStar, Walden maintained a public stable based in Kentucky. In 1998, he took over the training of Victory Gallop, after Prestonwood Farm purchased him from Mary Eppler following the colt's 2-year-old season. Walden trained Victory Gallop to wins in the Rebel and Arkansas Derby before his late run fell a half-length short of Real Quiet in the Kentucky Derby.

Victory Gallop ran second to Real Quiet again in the Preakness. Though Walden wanted to run in the Belmont, he began to have second thoughts after Victory Gallop lost weight and developed a bad case of skin disease.

"I questioned whether he was going to run his race or not,'' said Walden, who two weeks before that year's Belmont broke his ankle in a pick-up basketball game at Monmouth Park. "I didn't feel like we could beat Real Quiet because I felt like we tried two different tactics in the Derby and the Preakness. In the Derby we tried coming from behind. In the Preakness we took it to him. I didn't really figure out a way we could beat him, but I felt like if anybody was going to beat him it was going to be Victory Gallop, so we had to give it another try."

In the Belmont, Kent Desormeaux aboard Real Quiet opened up a huge advantage entering the far turn and still had a four-length advantage at the eighth pole. With racing 220 yards away from having its first Triple Crown winner in two decades, Victory Gallop came flying under Gary Stevens. A tiring Real Quiet came out and bumped with Victory Gallop as the two horses were bobbing heads at the finish line.

"I remember thinking we were going to get taken down,'' Walden said. "From the pan view he swapped leads late and drifted in a little bit. I didn't know if he got the photo. I thought he was the one who came in till you saw the head on. I was very relieved when I saw the head on. I knew there was no way we were coming down.''

Then, as he waited for the result of the photo, Walden started to think that, had Real Quiet won, the stewards "would have a very, very difficult decision taking a horse down that won the Triple Crown. I was thankful that we did win the race outright.''

Walden made it to back to the classics in 1999 with Menifee, who finished second in the Derby and Preakness and fifth in the Belmont.

After being around Bluegrass Cat for a short period of time, Walden thought he could be a Triple Crown-type horse. It was his decision to place him with Todd Pletcher, who in the last few years has developed the most potent stable in the country.

In his first three starts for Pletcher, Bluegrass Cat won a maiden race, the Grade 3 Nashua, and Grade 2 Remsen.

At 3, Bluegrass Cat won the Sam Davis before running second in the Tampa Bay Derby. Bluegrass Cat went to the Blue Grass Stakes as the 9-5 favorite, but finished fourth, beaten 21 1/4 lengths by Sinister Minister.

Walden admitted his confidence was shaken somewhat after that, but he and Pletcher felt the horse deserved to run in the Derby. Bluegrass Cat rebounded with a solid effort to finish second to Barbaro.

Walden said he was as satisfied as one could be for a second-place finish. And Walden enters the Belmont very confident.

"I feel like the horse is a legitimate classic-type horse,'' Walden said. "I think he's a tremendous racehorse, and putting him in this position I feel very good about it. I think it's a competitive race and he's one of three or four horses that have a legitimate chance to win.''