06/05/2005 11:00PM

Profile of a Belmont Stakes winner


NEW YORK - With six of the last eight Belmont Stakes offering a shot for a sweep of the Triple Crown, sentiment has played a role in handicapping recent Belmont Stakes. How else can one explain Funny Cide being the even-money favorite against Empire Maker in 2003 when there was strong evidence that Empire Maker was simply a better horse? Or 6-5 on as uncertain a candidate as War Emblem in 2002? Or even money on Silver Charm in 1997 when everyone who really watched that year's Preakness Stakes knew that Touch Gold was the better horse, if only at that time?

With no Triple Crown prospect in this year's Belmont Stakes, sentiment can be relegated to the role that it should always have in handicapping, which is no role at all. But if you think simply being clear-headed makes handicapping a unique race like the Belmont much easier, think again.

First, there is the 1 1/2-mile distance. Maybe half of all horseplayers would maintain that a dirt race at that long a distance is made to order for an off-the-pace, stayer-type horse that can outgrind the others, while the other half of all horseplayers might maintain that the longer the race, the more important the pace. Well, half of all of them would be half right.

In looking back at the profiles of the last 12 Belmont Stakes winners, six won as pace players (Empire Maker, Point Given in 2001, Commendable in 2000, Touch Gold, Thunder Gulch in 1995, and Tabasco Cat in 1994). The other six (Birdstone in 2004, Sarava in 2002, Lemon Drop Kid in 1999, Victory Gallop in 1998, Editor's Note in 1996, and Colonial Affair in 1993) won Belmonts from off the pace.

The profiles of the last dozen Belmont winners also indicate that while it is good to be in sharp recent form, it is not essential. Six of the last 12 Belmont winners (Empire Maker, Sarava, Point Given, Victory Gallop, Tabasco Cat, and Colonial Affair) finished second or better in stakes races in their start before the Belmont. But three recent Belmont winners finished off the board in their prior start. One was Touch Gold, who should have been unsaddled when a close fourth in the Preakness, but the other two were Birdstone, who was beaten more than 15 lengths when eighth in the Kentucky Derby, and Commendable, who lost by 26 lengths when 17th in the Derby. For the record, of the 11 candidates for Saturday's Belmont, Afleet Alex, Southern Africa, Pinpoint, and Reverberate finished second or better in stakes last time out. Andromeda's Hero and Chekhov were off the board in their last start.

Analysis of these Belmont Stakes winner profiles supports some widely held perceptions. For example, the distance of the Belmont would, like the Kentucky Derby, seem to put a premium on foundation, which suggests racing experience at 2. Indeed, each of the last 12 Belmont winners raced at 2. Of those pointing to Saturday's Belmont, Pinpoint and A. P. Arrow did not race at 2.

Prior success in graded stakes would seem a requirement for a winner of a race like the Belmont. Sure enough, 10 of the last 12 Belmont winners had previously won at least one graded stakes. The exceptions were Sarava, who had won the ungraded Sir Barton, and whose 70-1 shocker in the Belmont is the biggest upset in the race's history, and Commendable (18-1). There are only three graded stakes winners in the prospective field for this Belmont: Afleet Alex, Giacomo, and Southern Africa.

Along the same lines, one would expect the winner of the Belmont to have raced in an earlier Triple Crown event, much in the way 21 of the last 22 Preaknesses have been won by horses coming out of the Kentucky Derby. The best 3-year-olds are, by definition, the ones that competed in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, and horses coming out of the Preakness or Derby often populate the majority of Belmont Stakes fields. Indeed, 10 of the last 12 Belmont winners ran in an earlier Triple Crown race, the exceptions being Sarava and Colonial Affair. Yet as the field currently stands for this Belmont, only Afleet Alex, Giacomo, and Andromeda's Hero exit earlier Triple Crown races.

Finally, despite having to go an extended distance, there is still a premium on the ability to run fast, as one might expect in one of America's three classic races for males. Ten of the last 12 Belmont winners all had earned triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures. The only exceptions were Birdstone and Sarava, although they accounted for two of the last three Belmonts. Of the 11 current probables for Saturday's Belmont, only Afleet Alex, Reverberate, and Giacomo have earned triple-digit Beyer Figures, and Giacomo barely qualifies with his 100 Beyer in his slowly run Derby.

All of which supports the fact that, despite asking its entrants to negotiate a distance they will never again try on dirt, the Belmont is a remarkably formful race. The success of Belmont favorites is a robust 43.4 percent.

I should remember that, but probably won't, when it comes time to make selections.