06/11/2004 12:00AM

Peers offered Elliott a bit of solace


ELMONT, N.Y. - It takes 393 steps (including 161 down stairs) to get from the press box to the jocks' room at Belmont Park. An hour after the Belmont Stakes, the enclaves were on top of each other - the pounding of laptop keyboards echoing through the jockeys' bunker in the basement.

It's the jockey's job to ride a race, the reporter's job to analyze it, and the fan's right to agree or disagree. Sometimes they clash.

Stewart Elliott, the most scrutinized man in racing during the last five weeks, had finally lost a race on Smarty Jones. His choices will forever be second-guessed - by him and all the Sunday-morning jockeys.

Elliott let Smarty Jones run his usual, tactically close race in the 1 1/2-mile marathon. Like Spectacular Bid, Real Quiet, Funny Cide, and so many others, Smarty Jones left the backside electric in possibility. By the time the wire came, another Triple Crown had blown a fuse.

After the race, most fans applauded Elliott as he was escorted from Smarty Jones's creased back to the press conference in the basement film room. A handful of hecklers jeered him. One yelled, "Hey, Stewart, it was a mile and a half."

Boy, does he know that. The longest 12 furlongs of his life - especially the last eighth when Smarty Jones was swapping leads and pinning his ears as he scraped the bottom of his tank for one more miracle.

Elliott made choices in the Belmont - if you can call them that. He was the last lonely gazelle facing all comers with nothing but desert in between. The choices amounted to run, hide, or fight for all you're worth.

Should he have saved more for the end? Sure, if he could have. Smarty Jones possesses natural speed that's difficult to harness or ration. When Purge and Rock Hard Ten pressured from the inside and Eddington crept to the leader's quarter from the outside, that natural speed slipped through Elliott's hands. It would have slipped through any jockey's hands - there's no way to stop it.

Elliott hoped that he would get a break when he got to the lead, that Smarty Jones's engine would idle for a moment and recharge for the long stretch, but Rock Hard Ten came back for more - and Smarty Jones put him away again. Anybody who dared to stay close faded while Birdstone bottom-fed his way to Smarty Jones's jugular.

The little horse who always could finally couldn't. Disbelief, shock, and all those feelings that nobody wanted to feel on this day were here.

Especially 393 steps from the press box - where it felt as if a viewing were under way as jockeys offered condolences to Elliott. Moments after the most difficult press conference an athlete can endure, the 39-year-old Elliott sipped a Diet Pepsi and took an occasional bite from a turkey wrap while an endless line of peers offered advice, praise, and deflected the criticism sure to come Elliott's way.

"You made the right decisions," said Alex Solis, who rode Rock Hard Ten. "Just like you did in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness."

"Thank you. We tried," Elliott said.

"I would have ridden him the same way," said Jerry Bailey, who was aboard Eddington. "The two races before and the mile and a half got you."

"He ran, we just got beat," Elliott said.

"You know you're going to get your negative press out of this, it never fails. But keep your chin up, keep working hard," said Pat Day, who rode third-place Royal Assault. "You all have carried yourselves in exemplary fashion. I appreciate you guys so much, and we haven't heard the last of you."

"He's a good horse. He'll be back," Elliott said.

"I know it's going to be tough not to think about how it went, but don't ever doubt yourself," said Aaron Gryder, who watched from the jocks' room. "You gave him a chance. Feel good about yourself."

"What are you going to do?" Elliott said.

"You rode him great - 2:27 would have won a lot of Belmonts," said Richard Migliore, who watched from the infield with his son Joey. "I'm proud of you. The way you handled everything, you could be a film study for young jockeys learning how to talk to people after a race. You're a credit to all of us."

"Thank you. It's been great," Elliott said.

"Sorry, my friend," said Edgar Prado, who had the fortune and misfortune of riding Birdstone. "I'm sorry."

"We'll get 'em next time, right?" Elliott said as he walked toward the stairs, inching closer to the outside world.

"I've been coming in from Philly once or twice a year for a long time, but I never knew any of these guys," Elliott said. "Now I know them. All of a sudden, you get a good horse and what you're doing makes you closer. That makes me feel good."

About then, 9-year-old Jose Santos Jr. grabbed Elliott by the arm and warned him. "They're out there looking for you," Santos said, referring to the press. "You should go out the back way."

Elliott brushed off the warning from Santos, who saw his father's winning ride on Funny Cide in last year's Kentucky Derby questioned by the Miami Herald.

"It'll be okay," Elliott said. "Listen, you win some and you lose the rest."