05/17/2004 11:00PM

Spoiling for Smarty

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Tapit, winning the Wood Memorial, has put back on some of weight he lost in the Derby.

In last year's Triple Crown, a horse who became wildly popular won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes, but was then defeated in the Belmont Stakes by a colt who had disappointed in the Derby and skipped the Preakness. The connections of Tapit are hoping they can follow in the footsteps of Empire Maker and play the role of spoiler against Smarty Jones in the 136th Belmont on June 5 at Belmont Park.

After finishing ninth in the Derby on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs, Tapit bypassed the Preakness in order to await the Belmont. His trainer, Michael Dickinson, said last week at his Tapeta Farm in Maryland that Tapit had lost some weight in the Derby and had yet to put it back on. But Tapit has made progress in the past week, according to David Fiske, who manages the stable of owner Ron Winchell.

"He looks good, and he's traveling good," Fiske said Tuesday. "He's been jogging and galloping at Michael's. He's scheduled to work there on Thursday."

Fiske said the decision to forgo the Preakness was an easy one.

"We came to the conclusion that he would have a better chance in the Belmont than he did in the Preakness. Part of that thinking was right," Fiske said, laughing, "because I don't think anybody had a chance against Smarty Jones on Saturday."

Smarty Jones figures to be an overwhelming favorite in the Belmont. Should he prevail, he will become the 12th Triple Crown winner and the first since Affirmed in 1978. Smarty Jones is the 10th horse since Affirmed to capture both the Derby and Preakness. The nine previous horses were all defeated in the Belmont.

"Smarty Jones is 8 for 8, and he looks tough," Fiske said. "We're going to go out and give it a shot. We don't have anything else to do on June 5. It seems that every year a horse wins the first two, he's perceived as a super horse, and that rarely turns out. It may prove out this year. But we're going to go up and try, and if it doesn't work out, we'll go someplace else. The Belmont is worth winning. We've got as good a shot as any, and better than most."

The Belmont, at 1 1/2 miles, is the longest of the Triple Crown races. The Preakness, at 1 3/16 miles, is the shortest.

"Go out to your car and drive five-sixteenths of a mile. It's a ways," Fiske said. "There's a big difference in the Belmont from the Preakness."

Tapit is a grandson of A.P. Indy, who won the Belmont in 1992. Tapit has been one of the leaders of this generation for two seasons. In his brief, five-race career he has captured the Laurel Futurity and the Wood Memorial.

* Mustanfar, who finished third in an allowance race against older horses last week at Belmont Park, is no longer under consideration for the Belmont, according to trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.

- additional reporting by Karen M. Johnson