06/06/2001 11:00PM

Still a test of a champion's stamina

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The Belmont Stakes has for many years been the last and the longest race of America's Triple Crown series. It was not always meant to be either. Today, it stands alone as a Grade 1 race for males at 1 1/2 miles on dirt - still the dominant surface for American racehorses. That, too, is a role the race did not always occupy.

Inaugurated in 1867, the Belmont was first run at Jerome Park, one of the elegant and huge New York tracks that ushered in an age of glamour for Eastern racing after the Civil War. The distance was 1 5/8 miles. Some years later, an attempt was made to create a series of three races roughly imitating England's Triple Crown of the 2000 Guineas, Derby, and St. Leger. The English series has a progression of one mile, 1 1/2 miles, and 1 3/4 miles. New York tracks offered the Withers at one mile, the Belmont (shortened to 1 1/4 miles in 1890), and the Realization (now the Lawrence Realization) at 1 5/8 miles. All three of those races still exist today, but they never caught on as a nationally recognized Triple Crown.

By the 1930's, the Belmont had been aligned with the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes in Maryland, and that version of an American Triple Crown was set as the centerpiece of Thoroughbred racing.

The American Racing Manual shows the distance of the Belmont ranging from its original 1 5/8 miles down to as short as 1 1/8 miles. The first horse eventually recognized as a Triple Crown winner, Sir Barton, won his Belmont Stakes at 1 3/8 miles in 1919, as did the great Man o' War in 1920.

When Man o' War's son Crusader won the Belmont six years later, the distance had been changed to 1 1/2 miles, and it has remained at that distance ever since. Even during the 1960's when the race was run at Aqueduct while Belmont was being rebuilt, the distance was regarded as sacrosanct, although running 1 1/2 miles at Aqueduct required starting the race on a turn.

There were times during the two races' histories that the Belmont was considerably more important than the Derby. At the dawn of the 20th century, for example, the Belmont was worth $14,790 to winner Ildrim, whereas Lieut. Gibson earned less than one-third of that amount for winning the Derby.

By 1915, however, the New York owner Harry Payne Whitney opined that in winning the Kentucky Derby his filly Regret had won the greatest race in America. Even after the Derby took pride of place in the nation's sporting consciousness, many of the top breeders and owners disagreed with Whitney and continued to regard the Belmont Stakes as their most cherished goal.

One who put it succinctly was Joseph M. Roebling, who said of the Belmont, "I've been second in it and I've been third, and I would rather win it than any other race in the world."

In 1971, Mrs. Allaire du Pont, breeder and owner of Kelso, remarked that "I suppose every breeder thinks it's the real test - and the best race you could possibly win."

The Belmont sometimes is called the Test of the Champion, although perhaps it would be more accurately styled "the final test of the champion."

In the context of American racing and breeding, a colt that needs 1 1/2 miles to show at best advantage is hardly in the mainstream. The value of the Belmont as an indicator of stamina is that it provides an additional, searching question. If a colt can excel at the shorter distances and win the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, he is a truly a well-tested Thoroughbred.

The Belmont, however, until fairly recently did not represent the outer limit of stamina testing for its participants. Many of its winners went on to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup when the Gold Cup was run at two miles. They included Gallant Fox, Twenty Grand, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Phalanx, Citation, Counterpoint, One Count, High Gun, Nashua, Gallant Man, Sword Dancer, Damascus, and Arts and Letters.

The Jockey Club Gold Cup was reduced in distance to 1 1/2 miles in 1976 and then to 1 1/4 miles in 1990.

The distance of 1 1/4 miles became popular in American racing with the success of the Suburban Handicap, which was inaugurated in 1884. Declining distances of top races had been a trend since before the Civil War, as single-heat races, or dashes, had begun to replace the tradition of three heats for a single event.

Now the Belmont Stakes stands in isolated splendor as the only Grade 1 race on dirt for males at 1 1/2 miles and thus is a key indicator of stamina for future generations. Despite the seeming rarity of races significant to breeders at more than 1 1/4 miles, the last seven winners of a Triple Crown race have at least one male ancestor in his first three generations who won a major race at 1 1/2 miles. This leavening in a pedigree appears to be a factor in horses racing at top levels at 1 1/4 miles as well as 1 1/2 miles.

American racing, however, does not lack distance races as much as it may seem. The Jockey Club Fact Book for 2001 reports that last year there were 465 races run at more than 1 1/4 miles. This is a decline of nearly 100 such races since 1990. But as the overall number of races has decreased, the percentage of races at more than 1 1/4 miles has increased from 0.75 percent to 0.85 percent.

As a generalization, the American buyer seeks brilliance and precocity. Stamina in a pedigree may not receive the consideration it is due. There may be an adequate number of distance tests, but many of the top 1 1/2-mile stakes are on grass and tend to be won by late-maturing horses. Often, the winners are either foreign-bred horses or American-bred horses formerly based in Europe. The breeding and yearling market do not consider such horses highly fashionable.

Even so acclaimed a race as the Breeders' Cup Turf has produced few top-level stallions in the American market, Theatrical being the brightest exception so far.

So, if American racing continues to cast the Belmont as a slender thread upon which to hang the future of staying ability, the race may be even more important than it has been in the past.

Edward L. Bowen is president of Grayson-Jockey Club Research Foundation and the author of 11 books on racing.