06/07/2006 11:00PM

Rested and ready for Crown's finale

Bluegrass Cat heads field of 12 in the 138th Belmont Stakes.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Five weeks was an awfully long time before the Kentucky Derby, long enough to scare some skeptics from selecting Barbaro for that reason alone. Yet the same five-week layoff that some handicappers found so disconcerting for the Derby is a non-issue for just about any other race throughout the year, including the Belmont Stakes, where, in recent years, fresh has been best.

Three times in the past six years, the Belmont has been won by a horse who ran in the Derby, then skipped the Preakness Stakes in order to point for the final leg of the Triple Crown, the . That could be the case again in this year's Belmont, which will be run for the 138th time on Saturday at Belmont Park.

Of the 12 horses entered in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, five - Bob and John, Deputy Glitters, Jazil, Steppenwolfer, and the likely favorite, Bluegrass Cat - have followed the schedule that proved beneficial this decade to Belmont winners Commendable (2000), Empire Maker (2003), and Birdstone (2004). Two others - High Finance and Sacred Light - also have not raced for five weeks, but did not run in the Derby.

As in 2000, this Belmont lacks the winners of both the Derby and Preakness. Without a Triple Crown on the line, officials at the New York Racing Association hope to get about half the crowd that would have turned out for a Triple Crown bid.

"I'd be happy with 50,000," said Charles Hayward, the president and chief executive officer of the New York Racing Association. "We have a great undercard. My guess is we can handle more than the $81 million we did last year."

In addition to the Belmont, the card includes two Grade 1 stakes, the Acorn for 3-year-old fillies and the Manhattan Handicap for turf runners. The turf should have some give in the ground following rain showers that lingered at midweek. There was a 70 percent chance of rain Thursday and a 60 percent chance on Friday, but only a 20 percent chance on Saturday, according to The Weather Channel. Saturday's high temperature is forecast to be a comfortable 73 degrees.

The Belmont has a $1 million purse, with $600,000 going to the winner. It is the 11th race on a 13-race card that begins at noon Eastern time. Post time for the Belmont is 6:33 p.m. It will be televised live in a two-hour show on ABC Sports that begins at 5 p.m. ESPN will televise the first part of the card in two shows that run consecutively for five hours, beginning at noon.

Five graded stakes precede the Belmont, and those six races make up a pick six that will have a guaranteed pool of $1 million. A pick four that also concludes with the Belmont offers another $1 million guarantee.

While the Belmont may not have the compelling drama of a Triple Crown bid, it is an excellent betting race, with no standout. Bluegrass Cat, who was 30-1 when he ran second in the Derby, is the lukewarm 3-1 favorite on the lines set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, and Eric Donovan of Belmont Park.

Bluegrass Cat and Sunriver, the second choice on the lines of both Watchmaker and Donovan, are trained by Todd Pletcher. Bluegrass Cat is 2 for 2 at Belmont Park, and has finished first or second in 6 of his last 7 starts, the lone blemish a fourth-place finish in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

"He's one of those horses you want to see on his toes before the race," Pletcher said. "It's a sign he'll run well. For whatever reason, he was quiet before the Blue Grass."

The five weeks off for Bluegrass Cat since the Derby "accomplished what we wanted," Pletcher said.

"He put weight back on," Pletcher said. "He should be sitting on a big race."

Sunriver was entered in the Derby, but did not get in because of insufficient graded earnings in a field that drew more than the maximum of 20 runners. Sunriver moved on to this track's Peter Pan Stakes, which he won three weeks ago.

"I don't know that he was ridden perfectly to win the Peter Pan - he was farther back than he should have been - but I thought it turned out to be the perfect prep for the Belmont," Pletcher said.

Sunriver's only poor race came on a sloppy track in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in February. He is one of several horses who could be affected if the wet weather lasts into Saturday; Deputy Glitters, according to trainer Tom Albertrani, could scratch if the track is sloppy.

Deputy Glitters beat Bluegrass Cat in the Tampa Bay Derby in March. He was eighth in the Kentucky Derby after a wide trip.

"At the half-mile pole, Jazil was inside of us," Albertrani said. "He got through inside, but we had to go around. That was the difference. He finished as strong as he could, considering he went 11 wide."

Steppenwolfer was third in the Derby. His sire, Aptitude, was second in the 2000 Belmont.

"We're just trying to improve one spot off what his father did," said Dan Peitz, who trains Steppenwolfer.

Jazil, who trailed the field early in the Derby, finished in a dead heat for fourth. "We know he'll get the distance," said his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin. "He won't be as far back in the Belmont because the early pace won't be as fast."

Bob and John won the Wood Memorial in April, but was 17th in the Derby. "His style fits this race," his trainer, Bob Baffert, said Thursday morning.

High Finance is making his stakes debut, but he comes off a fast allowance win over this track and figures to be the early leader in a race that should unfold at a moderate pace.

"He's doing great," said his trainer, Rick Violette, "and it's a wide-open race."

Hemingway's Key was a distant third in the Preakness last time out, the first time he had finished in the money in five starts this year. His trainer, Nick Zito, engineered Birdstone's Belmont upset of Smarty Jones two years ago.

Sacred Light owns a victory against maidens, but he won that race via disqualification, so he has never actually finished first in a race.

Double Galore and Platinum Couple, both longshots, are adding blinkers for this race.

Oh So Awesome, making his second start in this country, is adding Lasix.