06/09/2005 12:00AM

Tough getting past the obvious choices

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Afleet Alex, shown training at Belmont Park on Thursday, has the loftiest reputation as he comes into the Belmont Stakes for trainer Tim Ritchey. Giacomo will be a distant second in the betting.

ELMONT, N.Y. - Pick your adjective. Afleet Alex's flirtation with disaster in the Preakness was dramatic, athletic, even acrobatic. If Mike Tyson was that tough to knock down, he would still be wearing a championship belt.

But unless you have reason to believe the horse will be similarly accosted in the Belmont Stakes, his sense of balance doesn't matter that much from a handicapping point of view.

The most interesting part of the Preakness from the perspective of a horseplayer was actually what preceded the bump-and-run. When was the last time we saw a 3-year-old make a move like that in a Triple Crown race? And that is why Afleet Alex deserves his billing as the heavy Belmont favorite.

Of course, we know that horses go through form cycles, and those cycles often seem to coincide with the Belmont Stakes. Also, it seems that many horses who win the Belmont are not those with an explosive turn of foot, but ones who maintain a high cruising speed, so to speak, and almost rhythmically pound their rivals into submission.

It has been noted as well that the nouveau pedigrees that are now winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness lack sufficient oxygen reserves for the Belmont. Afleet Alex does have the same sort of miler pedigree that seemed at least partially responsible for the 12-furlong undoing of Funny Cide and Smarty Jones.

But between the ears matters, too, and that difference could be the key here.

Funny Cide was so keyed up the week of his Belmont that he was almost unrateable, and fighting with Jose Santos and Empire Maker simultaneously was no way to win a 1 1/2-mile classic. And the same competitiveness that made Smarty Jones a great racehorse contributed to his only lifetime defeat. Stewart Elliott probably wanted to wait longer to move, but once the pace started to heat up, he was no longer calling the shots.

Afleet Alex has been putty in Jeremy Rose's hands. In the Arkansas Derby, Rose had him four lengths behind very slow fractions, yet he shot around the competition with basically the same move he made in the Preakness. In the Kentucky Derby, Afleet Alex's premature bid into a suicidal pace took away much of that knockout punch, but Rose's patience in Baltimore helped him get his groove back.

He might not have the talent of Smarty Jones, but Afleet Alex has all the competitiveness plus the important ability to switch it off until asked to use it. Such cooperation pays dividends as distances lengthen and speed rationing becomes more crucial.

Besides, if not Afleet Alex, then who?

Giacomo's trip in the Preakness has been described as eventful, but after looking at NBC's isolated replay, I must have missed the event. Giacomo was four wide around the first turn while Afleet Alex was in the two path, and Giacomo raced one to two paths wider than Afleet Alex on the second turn. Do the math. That accounts for three or four lengths of the 9 3/4 lengths Giacomo was beaten. Mike Smith had to steady Giacomo ever so slightly in traffic approaching the stretch, but don't blink or you'll miss it. The only rough trip in the Preakness belonged to the horse whose nose was rubbed in the dirt.

Common sense tells us Giacomo can win Saturday only if he shows substantial improvement at the distance, or Afleet Alex regresses, and he may need both.

Reverberate seems headed in the right direction. He was second in the Peter Pan to a horse (Oratory) who may win the Travers, and he is a son of a Belmont winner (Thunder Gulch). On paper, he stands a reasonable chance of placing ahead of Giacomo in exotics, but is solidly behind Afleet Alex on the Beyer Speed Figure curve.

With the right trip, Southern Africa is also a legitimate trifecta/superfecta contender.

Nick Zito is going back to the Kentucky Derby-to-Belmont well, but Andromeda's Hero has yet to show the ability Birdstone had already demonstrated a year ago.

Other than that, the Belmont looks suspiciously like a nonwinners-of-two allowance, possibly because four starters would qualify for such a race.