06/06/2004 11:00PM

Prado erases another Triple Crown dream

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Edgar Prado had been here before, only this time was different. In 2002, when Prado guided Sarava to the biggest upset in Belmont Stakes history, the horse going for the Triple Crown, War Emblem, was already finished.

Saturday, with 120,139 on hand, and another several million watching on television and at tracks across the country, Prado and his pocket-sized colt Birdstone entered the Belmont Park homestretch with only one horse in front of him: Triple Crown hopeful Smarty Jones.

But while the largest crowd ever to witness a sporting event in New York pleaded with Smarty Jones and his rider, Stewart Elliott, to keep going, Prado had a job to do. He persevered on Birdstone, finally getting past a tiring Smarty Jones in the final 70 yards to win the 136th Belmont by one length at odds of 36-1. It left an entire fan base in shock and left Prado with mixed emotions.

"I'm happy and sad at the same time," said Prado, who apologized to Elliott for denying him the Triple Crown. "I just went out and did what I had to do."

Moments after he crossed the finish line, Prado tried to give Stewart a high-five. But, Stewart, perhaps still in shock, did not reciprocate. Prado said one of the reasons he was apologetic after the race was that he has a friendship with Elliott that goes back to 1988, when the two rode together at Suffolk Downs.

"He's a great guy, good person, good rider," Prado said of Elliott. "Who could be better to win a Triple Crown?"

Prado and Birdstone fell into an absolutely perfect trip. John Velazquez couldn't hold Purge, who burned himself out on the front end after his connections had hoped to rate him. Alex Solis, on Rock Hard Ten, and Jerry Bailey, on Eddington, were intent on not letting Smarty Jones get an easy lead.

Prado had Birdstone in fifth position down the backside, and he gradually inched closer as the others faded. By the five-sixteenths pole, Prado had Birdstone into second and knew he had a chance.

"I was biding my time," Prado said. "I was just where I wanted to be; it was perfect for me. When [Smarty Jones] didn't open up on the turn, and I started slowly coming up to him, I knew I had a good chance to win the race."

Prado was quietly confident in Birdstone. He had ridden Birdstone to a 12-length victory in his debut at Saratoga and again in the Kentucky Derby. Though Birdstone finished eighth in the Derby, 15 1/4 lengths behind Smarty Jones, Prado accentuated the positive. Birdstone, light on fitness after a soft pre-Derby campaign, was last after the first eighth of a mile in the Derby, but made a mild run from the five-furlong pole to the quarter pole.

"I was very happy with the way he ran in the Derby; I was one of the few that was running at the end," Prado said. "Considering the way my horse ran the first quarter of a mile in the Derby, he did it like a man; he took every single punch and still ran hard."

Prado has a week to savor his Belmont victory. On Sunday, he began serving a seven-day suspension for a careless riding infraction he incurred May 30.

Though Prado has stopped two Triple Crown bids the last three years, he would someday like to be in the position that Elliott was in on Saturday.

"I'd prefer to be the one being chased than chasing someone," he said.