06/01/2004 12:00AM

Not exactly 'Been there, done that'

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There is no other race like it. Nothing. The Belmont Stakes is the only major stakes race in the United States at 1 1/2 miles on dirt, and its uniqueness increases exponentially when the Triple Crown is on the line.

In the 1970's, three horses completed the Triple Crown sweep. Since then, however, no one has done it. But jockeys Steve Cauthen, Jean Cruguet, and Ron Turcotte - who made history that glorious decade with Triple Crown victories - have the Belmont seared into their memories. All three agree that riding the race has specific nuances, both in terms of pace and negotiating one lap of Belmont Park's main track, the biggest in the country.

"Belmont's different than any other track," said Cauthen, who rode the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, in 1978. "It's vast and wide. When you turn up the backside, it looks like a beach in South Carolina. There's no end to it."

"You've got to go easy on the first turn," said Cruguet, who rode Seattle Slew in 1977. "It's a part of the track they never use. It's sandy. You've got to take care of the horse so he can go as far as he can. You're traveling a long ways."

"You have to save ground on one of the turns," said Turcotte, who rode Secretariat in 1973. "And you want them to relax under you. That's a big edge for a horse going a long ways."

When Smarty Jones runs in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, he will be attempting to become the 12th Triple Crown winner, and the first since Affirmed. He will be attempting to join Seattle Slew as the only colts to emerge from the Triple Crown having never lost a race. And Smarty Jones owns several parallels to Secretariat. He is trying to break a lengthy Triple Crown drought, he's a chestnut colt whose owners have blue and white silks, and his pedigree, at least before the Kentucky Derby, was questioned as to its being suitable for 1 1/4 miles and beyond.

If you've got the horse, though, none of that matters, Turcotte said. He said Secretariat "was getting better and better" coming into the Belmont.

"The morning after he had his final blowout, they had to take him inside the shed row because he kept rearing up," Turcotte said. "It's very important in the Triple Crown to keep fit for three races and have luck."

Smarty Jones is bucking history on several fronts. Every previous Triple Crown winner had raced at least once at Belmont Park before the Belmont Stakes.

"When you have a horse that doesn't have to carry a racetrack with him, I don't think that matters," Turcotte said, in defense of Smarty Jones.

In addition, Stewart Elliott, who rides Smarty Jones, is not based at Belmont Park. Cauthen, Cruguet, and Turcotte all were based there during their Triple Crown runs.

"There's no doubt you're more comfortable if you ride at the track regularly," Cauthen said. "But it looks like Smarty Jones is a push-button horse. He broke out of the gate in the Preakness like he was going five furlongs, but Stew Elliott took a hold of him and looked like he could have sat second forever. When he took him to the front, he reminded me of Affirmed, the way he was pricking his ears back and forth, only he didn't have Alydar breathing down his neck."

Cauthen said that adaptability is what convinces him that Smarty Jones can capture the Belmont Stakes and, with it, the Triple Crown.

"With Affirmed I had options. It's a great option to be in front, or second or third," Cauthen said. "Going a mile and a half, you've got to get settled on the first turn and for the first half-mile or five-eighths of the race. If you're settled, there's no excuses if you're good enough. Smarty Jones is starting to look like that. He's got natural speed, he's going to be forwardly placed, and you can make a move when you want to. He looked like he improved from the Derby to the Preakness. If he stays as good as he was Preakness Day, or improves, it's going to be exciting to watch."

"If he can go a mile and a half, he's going to win," Cruguet said.

Turcotte was more emphatic, predicting a Secretariat-like blowout.

"I don't think we've seen his best. He's getting better and better," Turcotte said.

Still, Cauthen cautions one should underestimate the rigors of the Triple Crown.

"It's difficult to keep a horse at the same pitch for five weeks at three tracks," Cauthen said. "Affirmed was spent after the Belmont. It's a long slog. There's three races before you even get to the Triple Crown. Most people have their horses pretty well prepped for the Derby.

"Lucien Lauren, Laz Barrera, and Billy Turner," Cauthen said, referring to the trainers of Secretariat, Affirmed, and Seattle Slew, "deserve credit for keeping their horses at a high-level pitch. You need to be 100 percent for all three races.

"I'm pretty impressed with how Stewart Elliott and John Servis have handled the whole situation. It's not the normal situation they're used to."