07/05/2006 11:00PM

Odd day at Belmont defies all logic

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NEW YORK - The next time that Strong Contender, Out of Gwedda, and Soaring By race, they could well be heavy favorites in major stakes races that will attract millions of wagering dollars. Horseplayers choosing whether to bet on them or against them will have their hands full trying to gauge their winning performances at Belmont Park on July 4, a day when the track surface changed drastically during the card and produced running times that are nearly impossible to quantify and interpret.

The 4th was not only a brutally hot and humid afternoon on Long Island but also the seventh straight day of racing at Belmont, an unusual function of where the holiday fell this year. The first two races were perfectly normal and logical in terms of time and form, with $10,000 claimers running six furlongs in 1:11.83 and older maidens covering the same distance in 1:11.29. Then things began to get very strange.

The third race was the Tremont, where Out of Gwedda was 1-5 in a four-horse field off a smashing debut that had earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 97. Given the times of the day's first two races, a repeat of his debut suggested a likely Tremont running time of around 1:04 and change. Out of Gwedda prevailed despite almost falling at the start, but the timer read 1:06.66.

Now obviously the winner and his time were severely affected by a stumbling start that left him last early and tired late as he grimly held on to win by 2 1/4 lengths, but even so the time was impossibly slow - the race would have earned a Beyer of 59 if you applied the same variant to it as the first two races. Instead, a separate variant was assigned to races 3, 4, and 5, giving the Tremont a low but more plausible 72.

Then in the fifth race, Soaring By, another Todd Pletcher-trained 2-year-old, made a good-looking debut and his time for the same 5 1/2-furlong distance was 1:04.93, which translated to a Beyer of 99 - 27 points better than the Tremont and the highest of the year by any 2-year-old in the country. Could Soaring By really be that good and that much faster than the Tremont winner, or was the track perhaps speeding up again?

If it was, it was only for one race, because when dirt racing resumed an hour later, the track appeared to take yet another turn for the slow. It was as if the surface was melting down from the weather or the solid week of racing. Two sprints for decent statebred allowance horses were timed in a pokey 1:07.11 for 5 1/2 furlongs and then an almost absurd 1:28.44 for seven furlongs. These were the slowest times of the meeting for the distance and the kind of clockings you usually only see from maiden claimers on the most weather-ravaged muddy tracks.

Next came the Dwyer, where Strong Contender appeared finally to live up to his reputation, winning off by nearly eight lengths. His time of 1:45.24 for 1 1/16 miles was the slowest of the 13 Dwyers run at the distance, and by three full seconds, but applying the same variant to it as the two preceding slow sprints, the race earned a Beyer of 109, stamping the winner a strong contender indeed for the summer's top 3-year-old races.

Perhaps we saw a trio of future Grade 1 winners, but it's hard to have much confidence in the times and figures emerging from a day when the track was getting slower and slower and at least three different variants had to be used to modify the afternoon's raw running times. Questions abound. Was Out of Gwedda's lowly 72 entirely a function of his trip or does it raise questions about his future? Was Soaring By's debut as spectacular as his 99 suggests or a function of a track in flux?

Strong Contender's race is the toughest to gauge, as the card's only dirt route at the end of a strange day. He had been widely pronounced a superstar without previously accomplishing much or running very fast. His supporters will view his 109 as legitimate proof of the flowering of a colt with great potential. Skeptics will say he capitalized on a duel between two sprinters who stopped cold in front of him, that his lofty figure is a guess on a difficult day, and that he will be a vulnerable favorite next time out.

The rigorous study of final time usually helps remove some of the mystery and ambiguity from comparative performances, but at Belmont last Tuesday it only deepened it. Out of Gwedda, Soaring By, and Strong Contender are all clearly talented horses, but exactly how talented remains to be seen - and could be the basis for some interesting wagers and opinions in the weeks ahead.