06/08/2004 11:00PM

Only one way to describe Belmont: Slow


LAS VEGAS - There's a lesson for all of us in this year's running of the Belmont Stakes. It has nothing to do with the toughness of the Triple Crown trail or a reminder about how anything can happen in a horse race. And it doesn't highlight the vulnerabilities often exposed in both horse and jockey by the demands of the exotic 1 1/2-mile distance. All of this is obviously true. It hardly needs repeating.

My Belmont lesson involves the Beyer Speed Figures, and it's quite simple: Don't conclude anything about the quality of a race or an individual horse's performance until you've seen the speed figure for that race. If you do jump to a pre-speed figure conclusion, you might be left with a wildly mistaken impression.

Here are my immediate reactions after Birdstone shocked the racing world.

Reaction No. 1: Smarty Jones ran a huge race. He chased and dueled and drew off (probably a bit prematurely) after some brisk fractions, left Rock Hard Ten and Eddington gasping at the end of the backstretch, and held on with tremendous courage at a distance that very likely did not suit him. He was a gallant hero in defeat and confirmed his status as a superstar runner.

Reaction No. 2: Birdstone finally fulfilled the promise he showed in his awesome debut at Saratoga last summer. He had big excuses in his last two races, so we were all too hasty in dismissing him as a pretender in the Belmont.

Reaction No. 3: We had further confirmation of Nick Zito's brilliance as a trainer - the surprising (even if rather distant) third-place finish of Royal Assault. Zito had not only prepared Birdstone for an explosive effort, but he had justified his seemingly quixotic entry of Royal Assault and substantially improved that horse as well.

I have only one thing to say about these initial reactions: wrong, wrong, wrong.

Royal Assault did indeed run third in the Belmont Stakes, but he didn't improve at all. His Beyer figure of 90 is right in line with his previous mediocre efforts (figures of 88-88-90). He just clunked along unimpressively and picked up some very weary pieces. In fact, in 17 out of the last 20 Belmonts, that figure of 90 would have made him an obscure also-ran. But not this year.

Birdstone improved on his previous efforts during the winter and spring, but not by that much. His winning Beyer of 101 - earned with an absolutely perfect trip - ties Thunder Gulch (1995) and Commendable (2000) for the lowest winning Beyer in the Belmont in the past two decades. All credit to Nick Zito for maintaining his confidence in the horse and for stepping up to the challenge of running in the Belmont - for "playing the game," as he puts it. But the Beyer Figures tell us that, although Birdstone did show improvement, he certainly did not deliver any kind of explosive effort. With a top Beyer of only 101 halfway through his 3-year-old season, the level of his ability remains unclear.

Smarty Jones looked gallant in defeat, but that turned out to be an illusion. He didn't put away Rock Hard Ten and Eddington. They just ran horribly, putting up minimal resistance and finishing in a virtual dead heat for fourth with a feeble 86 Beyer Figure. Tap Dancer, Master David, Caiman, and Purge made no impact. Royal Assault put in his allowance-caliber effort. Only Birdstone ran at all - and not very fast.

Immediately after the Belmont, Smarty Jones's jockey, Stewart Elliott, said Smarty Jones "had run his race. He just got passed by a better horse." Unfortunately, that's just another erroneous reaction. The Smarty Jones that Birdstone passed was not the Smarty Jones we saw in the Preakness. Not even close. It wasn't even the Smarty Jones we saw in the Kentucky Derby. No sensible person could have expected him to repeat his sensational Preakness figure of 118. But even a bounce down to 110 or even 108 or 106 looked plenty fast enough to beat all his Belmont rivals. And so it proved. But Smarty Jones regressed even more radically, all the way down to a 100. Perhaps the horse or the jockey (or both) were a bit overzealous on the front end. And perhaps the distance also contributed to his downfall. But these can only be partial excuses. The fact is Smarty Jones bounced, and bounced badly.

Before the race I thought Smarty Jones was not just another Funny Cide, but now I'm beginning to wonder. Did Smarty Jones also peak in the Preakness? Will he ever again run anything like that 118? Did he just beat up on a weak generation of runners at Churchill and Pimlico? Is he just another over-hyped Thoroughbred who overachieved on one particular day?

At this point there's no telling. Let's just hope we have ample opportunity - this year and next - to see how Smarty Jones answers these intriguing questions.