06/03/2004 12:00AM

That's why it's called gambling


ELMONT, N.Y. - Some behavioral scientists define clinical insanity as repeating the same behavior over and over and expecting the result to change. By this standard, every single person taking a position on the 136th Belmont Stakes, whether he's for or against Smarty Jones, is completely nuts.

Those hoping for the first Triple Crown winner in 26 years are taking a very short price that something that hasn't worked nine times in a row will turn out differently this time. Those trying to beat the favorite are looking to defeat an undefeated horse who appears to tower over his competition.

It's a crazy dilemma in what is often a crazy race. The wonderful anachronism of the Belmont's 1 1/2-mile distance is often a funhouse mirror. Horses who should be finishing a neck apart, such as Alysheba and Bet Twice or Easy Goer and Sunday Silence, win or lose this race by distended daylight margins. Horses who look like they have to fall down to lose, such as Spectacular Bid, don't fall down but still find a way to lose. Longshots who appear to lack a single competitive race in their dossiers, such as Summing or Sarava, jump up to win at massive prices.

Two things make Smarty Jones's bid more likely to succeed than many of the nine that have failed since 1978. First, he simply may be a better racehorse than several who have been in this position, probably including the last three - Charismatic, War Emblem, and Funny Cide. Second, he doesn't have an opponent who reasonable people could argue is demonstrably close in ability, the way Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, and Funny Cide had Bet Twice, Easy Goer, Touch Gold, and Empire Maker.

The lack of a proven, worthy rival will be reflected in the favorite's price. In the final analysis, it strikes me as just slightly more insane to take $2.60 than to try to beat him. Bob Baffert has been quoted as saying that anyone rooting against Smarty Jones "is a sick individual," but tens of thousands of horseplayers will be betting on someone else and are certainly entitled to root for their ticket.

The most logical alternative to the favorite is Rock Hard Ten, albeit on the come and in the wake of an 11 1/2-length Preakness defeat. That's an enormous gap to make up in three weeks, but not impossible, given the nature of the Belmont and the ability of lightly raced 3-year-olds to take sudden, giant strides forward.

Rock Hard Ten was making only his fourth career start in the Preakness and was coming off a six-week layoff after being excluded from the Kentucky Derby field for insufficient earnings. He is now fitter, more experienced, and perfectly eligible to move up a few lengths. If the distance moves Smarty Jones back a few lengths, it could be a lot closer between them this time.

Purge was no match for Smarty Jones earlier this winter but blossomed in the Peter Pan with a powerful performance that earned as good a Beyer Speed Figure as any of Smarty Jones's races except the Preakness. A race over the track can't hurt, and if he repeats his Peter Pan or moves forward off it, he can win if Smarty Jones does not fire the same shot he did in Baltimore.

Master David ran well enough six months ago to be competitive by now if he had shown routine improvement since then, but he hasn't yet. At least he flashed some genuine late kick rallying from last to be third in the Peter Pan, and he might be finishing fastest of all if the race comes unglued in the final furlong.

The rest are a real stretch. Birdstone has yet to run back to his Champagne and has made just one start in the last 10 weeks. Eddington has had plenty of chances to succeed at this level and hasn't done it. Royal Assault ran 15 lengths slower than the main event on the Preakness undercard. Caiman and Tap Dancer look even slower.

Perhaps the only thing crazier than betting on Smarty Jones or betting against him is doing both. Belmont is offering a $1 million-guaranteed pick four and pick six, both ending with the Belmont, and my plan is to try to get alive to four horses in the final leg: Smarty, of course, plus Rock Hard Ten, Purge, and even a little bit of Master David. If I get that far, I'm a sufficiently "sick individual" to root for the higher payoffs, but witnessing a Triple Crown would be decent consolation for a smaller return.