06/01/2006 11:00PM

No altering Belmont lore

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Hardly a year goes by that a sportswriter doesn't suggest altering the Triple Crown races by shortening the distances or expanding the time between races. Purists then jump in to say the races should be left alone. But these three races have changed often.

When Sir Barton became the first Triple Crown winner, the Derby was run just four days after the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes was run at 1 3/8 miles (clockwise). When Gallant Fox became the second Triple Crown winner, the Preakness was run eight days before the Derby.

In all, the Kentucky Derby has been run after the Preakness 11 times, twice on the same day, and several times with as little as three days between the two.

The Preakness has been run 11 times after the Belmont Stakes, once on the same day, and several times with as little as three days between the two.

Add to this, the Belmont Stakes has been run at four different tracks, at five different distances; the Preakness, at three different tracks, at six different distances.

Test your knowledge of the final leg of the Triple Crown.

1. Fair Play missed winning the Belmont Stakes by a head in 1908. His sire, Hastings, won the Belmont Stakes in 1896 and his grandsire Spendthrift won the same race in 1879.

Fair Play sired Man o' War, who won the Belmont Stakes in 1920. Three sons of Man o' War won the Belmont Stakes (American Flag, Crusader, and War Admiral).

The horse who beat Fair Play was reported broken down two days before the race. When he showed up for the event, his jockey misjudged the finish line, nearly costing him the win. Name the horse.

2. One week before capturing the Belmont Stakes in 1926, Crusader easily beat a field of older horses in the 1 1/4-mile Suburban Handicap. With today's trainers pampering their horses and seeking more and more time between races, such a schedule would be out of the question.

But in the past quarter-century, one horse went Crusader two days better. This horse beat older horses in the Metropolitan Mile just five days before capturing the Belmont Stakes. Name him.

3. In 1931, Twenty Grand, owned by the Greentree Stud of Helen Hay Whitney, became the first horse to capture the Kentucky Derby, Belmont Stakes, and Travers Stakes. He was second in the Preakness. Eleven years later, Greentree repeated the feat when Shut Out won all three races. He ran fifth in the Preakness.

In the more than six decades since Shut Out's accomplishment, only one horse has captured the three races. Name him.

4. By the time the 3-year-olds arrive in New York for the Belmont Stakes, bettors usually feel that they finally have them figured out. Since 1940 (the year that parimutuel wagering replaced bookmaking in the Empire State), nearly half of the Belmont Stakes have been contested with a horse going off at less than even-money.

Of the 32 horses sent off at odds-on in the Belmont Stakes in the parimutuel era, however, only 12 have won. Name the most recent odds-on starter in the Belmont Stakes and the most recent odds-on winner.

5. Secretariat's breathtaking 31-length win in the 1973 Belmont Stakes is legendary with today's racing fans. It is the official record victory margin for all Triple Crown races.

In two other memorable romps, Count Fleet completed his Triple Crown conquest in 1943 with a 25-length win in the Belmont, and Man o' War took the Belmont Stakes by 20 lengths in 1920. All three established track records.

In addition to these three, eight other Belmont Stakes winners reached the finish line 10 lengths or more in front. How many of them can you name?

HISTORY ANSWERS

1. Newspapers reported that undefeated Colin, the favorite for the 1908 Belmont Stakes, broke down two days before the race. But those reports proved to be wrong.

On May 30, Colin showed up in four bandages for the Belmont. The Thoroughbred Record reported that the horse "stepped out lightly and freely . . . and not the slightest indication was there of any ailment."

The race was run in a blinding rainstorm that obscured most of the running. No time was recorded. As the horses entered the stretch, Colin had a comfortable lead, but his jockey, Hall of Famer Joe Notter, appeared to ease up on him after what he thought was the finish line. (The 1 3/8-mile distance required moving the usual location for the finish farther up the stretch.)

"A thousand pities it would have been had Colin lost the Belmont through Notter's mistaking the finishing line," The Thoroughbred Record said. Fair Play, the third choice in the four-horse field, nearly passed Colin in the final strides.

Colin retired undefeated in 15 starts and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1956.

2. Running horses in major races with little rest was once common in racing. Triple Crown winners Omaha, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, and Citation each made one start between the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes.

Trainer Woody Stephens made his fellow trainers wince when he entered Conquistador Cielo in the 1982 Belmont Stakes just five days after the colt set a track record in beating older horses in the Met Mile.

Not only did Conquistador Cielo win the Belmont, he crushed the field. Such a short turnaround is unlikely to be seen in the near future. Conquistador Cielo was the first of Stephens's five-straight wins in the third jewel of the Triple Crown.

3. In the past six decades, only one horse has captured the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes and then gone on to win the Travers Stakes at Saratoga - Thunder Gulch in 1995. He ran third in the Preakness.

Of the 11 Triple Crown winners, only Whirlaway in 1941 went on to take the Travers, arguably the most important 3-year-old event after the spring classics.

4. The most recent odds-on horse to capture the Belmont Stakes was Triple Crown winner Affirmed (3-5) in 1978. Since Affirmed, six horses have gone to post in the Belmont at less than even-money. All six have lost.

Smarty Jones (3-10) was the most recent odds-on starter in the Belmont Stakes. He lost his bid for the Triple Crown, finishing second to Birdstone in 2004.

In 1957, two horses went to post odds-on in the Belmont Stakes. Gallant Man (4-5) won the race, while Bold Ruler (3-5) finished third. There was a field of six in that 89th running of the Belmont. The third choice was Inside Tract at 16-1.

5. Barbaro's margin of victory, 6 1/2 lengths, last month was the largest in the Kentucky Derby in 60 years. No horse has won the Derby by more than eight lengths.

The Preakness record is 11 1/2 lengths. But no fewer than 11 Belmont Stakes winners have won by 10 lengths or more. In addition to Man o' War, Count Fleet, and Secretariat, the following won the race by double digits:

1887: Hanover (conflicting reports vary from a margin of from 15 to 32 lengths)

1888: Sir Dixon (12)

1917: Hourless (10)

1931: Twenty Grand (10)

1982: Conquistador Cielo (14)

1987: Bet Twice (14)

1988: Risen Star (14 3/4)

2001: Point Given (12 1/4)