06/08/2005 12:00AM

Rubber match at 1 1/2 miles

Giacomo nibbles away at Belmont Park on Wednesday afternoon after flying into New York from California and picking up company in Kentucky.

ELMONT, N.Y. - When a horse wins the Kentucky Derby, he usually is compelled to run in the Preakness Stakes. Add the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes becomes mandatory. But if a horse wins the Derby, and then loses the Preakness, nothing is compulsory, especially if the horse is based at the other end of the country.

Giacomo, who won the Derby and then finished third in the Preakness, returned to his base at Hollywood Park right after the Preakness. He could have stayed right there, perhaps run at home in next month's Swaps Stakes, or taken a vacation. But the colt's progress so impressed his cautious trainer, John Shirreffs, that he and owners Jerry and Ann Moss decided to rev up the engine one more time.

"By taking Giacomo back to Hollywood Park, he was home, in his own stall," Shirreffs said. "It was quiet. He wasn't getting his picture taken six hours a day. When you go into the Triple Crown, you'd like to finish the series, if possible. Giacomo's holding up very well. We wouldn't go back unless the horse was doing well."

Giacomo arrived at Belmont Park on Wednesday afternoon, on a flight that began in the early morning in California and made a stop along the way in Kentucky. He will take on Afleet Alex - who was third in the Derby, then scored a remarkable victory in the Preakness - in a Belmont that does not have a Triple Crown at stake, but features a showdown between the Derby and Preakness winners. The last time that occurred was in 2001, when Monarchos faced Point Given.

Besides Afleet Alex and Giacomo, nine others - as expected - were entered Wednesday morning for 137th on Saturday at Belmont Park. Afleet Alex landed post 9, Giacomo post 5. With a lengthy run to the first turn in this 1 1/2-mile race, and a smaller field than in the Derby or Preakness, jockeys and trainers did not seem too concerned about where they drew.

"The track's so long, post positions won't make a difference," said Jeremy Rose, who rides Afleet Alex.

Afleet Alex was made the even-money favorite on the line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. Watchmaker has Giacomo at 7-2, with Reverberate, the second-place finisher in the Peter Pan Stakes, at 8-1. Eric Donovan, who makes the morning line at Belmont Park, made Afleet Alex 6-5, Giacomo 4-1, and Reverberate at 6-1. Neither Watchmaker nor Donovan has anyone else shorter than 10-1.

The Belmont purse is $1 million, with $600,000 going to the winner. The Belmont is the 11th race on a 13-race card that begins at noon. Post time for the Belmont is 6:38 p.m. Eastern. It will be shown on NBC during a 90-minute telecast that begins at 5:30 p.m. Eastern.

It was hot and steamy at Belmont on Wednesday, with a high temperature in the upper 80's, and plenty of humidity. The National Weather Service predicted better weather for Saturday, with a high temperature of 79 degrees and no rain. Thunderstorms are possible on Friday.

Trainer Nick Zito, who had five runners in the Derby and three in the Preakness, has three in the Belmont - Andromeda's Hero, Indy Storm, and Pinpoint. Zito won the Belmont last year with Birdstone, who spoiled Smarty Jones's bid to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

All of Zito's runners arrived at Belmont on Wednesday after traveling by van from Saratoga, where they had been training. The plane that carried Giacomo stopped in Kentucky to pick up A. P. Arrow and Nolan's Cat, who had been training at Churchill Downs, and Southern Africa, who began his day with an early-morning van ride from Arlington Park outside Chicago to Kentucky. Chekhov, the last Belmont horse to arrive on the grounds, was scheduled to travel by van from Saratoga on Thursday.

Giacomo was originally scheduled to go to Barn 14, where Afleet Alex and several out-of-town runners are being housed this week. But Shirreffs instead found room in a barn used by trainer Shug McGaughey, and put Giacomo there.

"The other barn didn't have much shade, or a place to graze," Shirreffs said. "This place is like a bed and board. There's some trees out front. It's quiet. Why not go somewhere where it's more quiet?"

Afleet Alex has been at Belmont since the weekend, and though he is going out for just one training session per day in the final days preceding the Belmont, he had a busy morning Wednesday. In addition to jogging and galloping on the main track, he visited the paddock. All told, he was out of his stall for about 2 1/2 hours, estimated his trainer, Tim Ritchey.

"He was grazing for a half-hour, and when it was time for him to go back in, he was like a little kid. He didn't want to come in," Ritchey said.

Afleet Alex and Giacomo are the only two horses who will compete in all three legs of the Triple Crown this year. The past three years, the Belmont was won by a horse who either skipped the first two legs of the Triple Crown (Sarava), or bypassed the Preakness after running in the Derby (Empire Maker, Birdstone). Reverberate, a late-developing colt, did not run in either the Derby or Preakness.

"He ran in an allowance race, then the Peter Pan and now the Belmont," said his trainer, Sal Russo. "That's our Triple Crown."

Russo was the assistant to trainer Scotty Schulhofer when Schulhofer won with Colonial Affair 1993, and was the agent for jockey Jose Santos when Santos won with Lemon Drop Kid in 1999. Reverberate is his first Belmont starter as a trainer.

"The only thing I can't do is win as a jockey," said the portly Russo.