06/08/2005 11:00PM

Test for jocks - but Rose has studied

Jeremy Rose will be competing in his first Belmont Stakes when he rides Afleet Alex.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Jockey Jeremy Rose well remembers his first thought when he saw expansive Belmont Park.

"It's big," he said.

Belmont Park is the only 1 1/2-mile track in the country. Most tracks are one mile, like Churchill Downs or Pimlico; some are 1 1/8 miles, like Aqueduct. And the Belmont Stakes itself, which encompasses one full lap, has become an anachronism in a sport that has gravitated toward speed over stamina. The Belmont Stakes is the only Grade 1 race on dirt in this country at 1 1/2 miles, a distance rarely run at any class level.

The combination of a unique track and distance has made the Belmont a test not only for beast, but for man. Ronnie Franklin, the inexperienced jockey on Spectacular Bid, was criticized for going too fast too soon in the 1979 Belmont when Spectacular Bid was going for the Triple Crown. Twenty-five years later, with another Triple Crown on the line, jockey Stewart Elliott also was questioned by some people for his mid-race handling of Smarty Jones, who had won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.

Neither Franklin nor Elliott rode regularly at Belmont Park, and neither had ever competed in the Belmont Stakes. Rose faces a similar situation on Saturday, when he rides Afleet Alex in the 137th Belmont Stakes. Before this week, Rose had ridden only nine races at Belmont Park and never in the Belmont Stakes.

The Belmont, which should unfold at a moderate pace, demands patience as opposed to the faster-paced Preakness, where Rose's instincts and the athleticism of Afleet Alex averted a disaster when Scrappy T veered suddenly into their path. So while Rose has certainly proved himself capable of riding with the nation's elite jockeys, he will be a focal point for bettors and other riders who hope his inexperience betrays him.

Don't count on it, said Tim Ritchey, the trainer of Afleet Alex.

"Jeremy has ridden two tremendous races in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness," Ritchey said. "I have complete confidence in Jeremy, and he has complete confidence in Alex, so I don't see any problem whatsoever."

Ritchey had Rose come to Belmont Park on Wednesday so the 26-year-old rider could compete here all week. Ritchey wanted to emphasize several points with Rose.

"On a mile track, when you switch leads going into the turn, you want to put your horse in the race a little bit, have him switch leads and go," Ritchey said. "Usually when you get to the turn, you're at the three-eighths pole. Here, it's the half-mile pole. Here, you want to switch leads, but you want to relax for a little while longer until at least halfway around the turn, if not the quarter pole. These are bigger, wider turns."

Rose seems to have done his homework regarding the demands of the Belmont.

"I just have to sit a little longer on him," Rose said. "You need to save ground on the turns. You have to be very patient and not ask your horse until you have to."

In last year's Belmont, several horses, including Smarty Jones, made aggressive mid-race moves. Edgar Prado, aboard Birdstone, waited, then pounced. The lesson was not lost on Javier Castellano, who rode in last year's Belmont on Tap Dancer and will be aboard longshot Watchmon this year.

"With Birdstone, some of the others went too fast in the beginning," Castellano said. "Prado was just sitting there."

One of the greatest rides in Belmont history came in 1976, when Angel Cordero Jr. coaxed 12 furlongs out of the speedy Bold Forbes.

"I was worried about getting the horse to rate," said Cordero, who is now the agent for jockey John Velazquez. "Most good horses aren't bred to go that far, and the ones that are bred to go that far are usually no good. Bold Forbes, he was blessed to have a trainer like Laz Barrera, and he had run in a lot of 2-year-old races, so he had experience. I concentrated on slowing him down. Most of my strategy was to slow him down. I rode him with confidence, but I honestly didn't think he could win."

Uncontrolled speed can prove a horse's undoing in the Belmont. Ritchey believes Afleet Alex is a different sort than Funny Cide or Smarty Jones, both of whom were too revved up in the first part of the race to successfully handle the distance.

"Neither one of those horses ever got a chance to relax," Ritchey said. "Alex can relax off the pace. Alex can relax, then accelerate. The horse has to have the mental attitude to accept what the rider is trying to do."

Experience factor

Here's how the riders in the 137th Belmont Stakes have performed on the main track at Belmont Park through races of June 8, ranked by winning percentage:

J. Bailey5,5801,11320
M. Smith3,69070819
G. Stevens3686718
E. Prado1,96235718
J. Velazquez4,62882518
J. Santos5,21085216
J. Castellano1,19618215
N. Arroyo Jr.83710513
R. Bejarano8113
J. Rose9111
J. Court600