06/02/2004 11:00PM

Showtime for Smarty Jones

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ELMONT, N.Y. - The friendship between trainer John Servis and jockey Stewart Elliott runs much deeper than their association with Smarty Jones. They socialize and vacation frequently, and often go deer hunting. On Saturday at Belmont Park, they will try to take down the biggest and most elusive prize in racing, the Triple Crown.

Smarty Jones heads into Saturday's 136th having won all eight of his starts, including the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes. He is now trying to go where no horse has gone in 26 years, since Affirmed became the 11th and last Triple Crown winner in 1978.

In the past few weeks, Smarty Jones has become a national phenomenon. Interest in this Belmont is at a fever pitch. Belmont Park officials are expecting a record crowd, well above the 103,222 who attended in 2002. A record 1,400 Belmont Stakes media credentials have been issued, eclipsing the 1,200 issued last year, according to Glen Mathes, the New York Racing Association's director of communications.

Smarty Jones got a sneak preview of the excitement early Thursday morning. En route to the main track to gallop and get his first feel of Belmont's main track, Smarty Jones encountered a phalanx of photographers lined across the path leading to the track like the front line of Pickett's Charge in the battle of Gettysburg. After they finally yielded to Smarty Jones and exercise rider Pete Van Trump, Servis - who was alongside Smarty Jones while on the pony Butterscotch - looked over and said sarcastically, "That's all right. He don't kick too hard."

The atmosphere figures to be festive on Saturday, though there is a chance of rain showers during the day, according to the National Weather Service. The high temperature is expected to be 68 degrees. With Smarty Jones expected to be bet in the vicinity of his morning-line price of 2-5, it can be safely said that just about everyone at the track, and watching the race on television, will be pulling for him. If Smarty Jones wins, he will set off a raucous celebration at Belmont Park. If he loses, a deflating hush will fall over the most disappointed crowd this side of an Eagles football game.

This race is not a walkover. Five times in the previous seven years, and nine times since 1978, a horse saw his Triple Crown bid end in the Belmont. And though Smarty Jones has won the Derby and Preakness by a combined 14 1/4 lengths, eight rivals, with various degrees of credentials, are entered against him.

But if Smarty Jones can pull it off, he will become the 12th Triple Crown winner, and owners Pat and Roy Chapman would earn a $5 million bonus from Visa, which sponsors the Triple Crown. Combined with the first prize money of $600,000 from the Belmont purse of $1 million, Smarty Jones would have a bankroll of $13,013,155, a North American record.

The Belmont is the 11th race on a 13-race card that begins at noon Eastern time. Post time for the Belmont is 6:38 p.m. It will be televised live by NBC Sports, beginning at 5:30.

The Belmont is the longest and most demanding of the Triple Crown races. It encompasses one lap of Belmont Park's mammoth, 1 1/2-mile main track. Smarty Jones is on the outside, in post 9. All eyes will be on him.

"Let's face it, there's a bulls-eye on our back," Servis said. "Other trainers could give off-the-wall instructions, because they've got nothing to lose. This is going to be an important race for Stew. Stewart has to shine. There's going to be horses making premature moves. He has to ride his race."

Elliott has little experience at Belmont Park. He has ridden in just 15 races at this track since 1997, and owns one victory. This will be his first mount in the Belmont Stakes, and he has no mounts on Saturday's card before the Belmont. There is plenty of pressure, but Servis thinks Elliott can handle it.

"We do a lot of trophy-hunting," Servis said. "When you do that, you have to pass on a lot of animals. You've got to be pretty patient, you've got to be cool. I've seen Stew get some big trophies and not show any emotion. He's a cool guy."

The pace does not figure to be quick. Both Purge and Smarty Jones, who have the most natural speed, have learned to stalk and then pounce. But one of them figures to inherit the lead.

"It looks like we could very well be in front, which is fine," Elliott said.

Servis said his biggest fears are Purge and Rock Hard Ten. Purge was defeated by Smarty Jones twice earlier this year in the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby, races in which he set the pace. But in the Peter Pan Stakes two weeks ago, Purge rated just off the lead.

"Since then he's learned to do what makes my horse what he is today," Servis said. "I'm sure he's not the same horse I ran against in Arkansas."

Rock Hard Ten finished second in the Preakness, 11 1/2 lengths behind Smarty Jones, but there is reason to believe he will improve significantly in the Belmont. The Preakness was only his fourth lifetime start, his first race in six weeks, and he was forced to race wide on both turns. Plus, the extra distance of the Belmont Stakes should suit this large, powerful colt.

"I don't know if the layout of Belmont Park will give him much of an advantage, because he can handle mile tracks like Santa Anita," said Jason Orman, who trains Rock Hard Ten. "The only advantage would be if it's a disadvantage to the others. We have to hope our horse improves a bit, and [Smarty Jones] regresses a bit. Our horse is a big, long-striding, galloping kind of horse. We hope we can make up ground on him. Hopefully we can stalk Smarty Jones and our stamina will carry us through the last part."

Orman said Rock Hard Ten's most recent work this week "was the best I've seen him work." The colt had trained sharply at Santa Anita, and then especially so at Churchill Downs. Rock Hard Ten was entered in the Derby, but when the race drew more than 20 entries, he was excluded because of insufficient earnings in graded stakes races.

"We had to train around the Derby," Orman said. "If we knew we weren't going to get in the Derby, we probably would have run in the Derby Trial to give him another race. He only had three races going into the Preakness. What he's done has been pretty incredible so far. And it's been easier to make up a schedule going into this race.

Orman said he envisions Rock Hard Ten staying right off of Smarty Jones.

"I don't want to be too far off him," Orman said. "That horse is so tactical."

And, so far, Smarty Jones has been unbeatable. His victory margins have ranged from three-quarters of a length in the Southwest Stakes on Feb. 28, to 15 lengths in the Pennsylvania Nursery Stakes Nov. 22. Eight starts, eight wins.

Can he do it again?

"I don't care if he wins by a nose," Servis said. "As long as he wins."