06/08/2005 11:00PM

Two big guns set for showdown

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Afleet Alex and Giacomo have split the first two legs of the Triple Crown, but they come into the 137th Belmont Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park being viewed through two different prisms.

Afleet Alex scored a remarkable victory in the Preakness Stakes when he overcame a mugging at the quarter pole. That, plus his consistency - seven victories in 11 outings - will make him a strong favorite in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont.

Giacomo rallied into a fast pace to score a 50-1 upset in the Kentucky Derby, then was a distant third in the Preakness. With his two wins in nine starts, there is a palpable current of skepticism toward him, which is why he will be a distant second choice in the Belmont.

Yet if racing fans and handicappers have learned anything in recent years regarding the Belmont, it is that this race is not easy to predict. The leading contenders in the Belmont are usually the top runners from the two previous Triple Crown races, but the grind of the Triple Crown takes a toll that often does not reveal itself until about a quarter-mile remains in the Belmont Stakes. In the last six years, only Point Given in 2001 won the Belmont after competing in the first two legs of the Triple Crown.

From 2002 to 2004, a horse was going for the Triple Crown, but in each instance that horse was defeated, twice by longshots. That, no doubt, has emboldened nine others to take on Afleet Alex and Giacomo in the Belmont, though many of the new shooters are not coming with a full holster.

There is no Triple Crown on the line this year, but there is a great general interest in the saga of Afleet Alex. His backstory, including bringing attention to pediatric cancer research, plus the deserved accolades he and jockey Jeremy Rose received for their death-defying balancing act in the Preakness, has made him the most popular horse currently racing. There were more than 100,000 people at each of the past three Belmonts, and while Saturday's crowd will not come close to that, New York Racing Association officials are hoping some 75,000 will want to brave the heat and humidity to see the final leg of the Triple Crown. The National Weather Service is predicting temperatures in the mid-80's, with a good deal of humidity.

The Belmont purse is $1 million, with $600,000 going to the winner. If the winner is either Afleet Alex or Giacomo, that colt will enter the second half of the year as the unquestioned leader of the 3-year-old colt division.

Afleet Alex has raced at Belmont, finishing second last fall in the Champagne Stakes. He has raced at seven different tracks.

"He's very agile and athletic," said his trainer, Tim Ritchey. "I think he could run at Charles Town" - which has a six-furlong track - "and not have a problem. He's the most athletic and agile horse I've been around, and that includes show horses who jump six-foot fences, steeplechasers, three-day event horses."

Ritchey earlier this year put Afleet Alex on a training regimen that often has included two sessions per morning, with jogs and gallops sometimes totaling five miles. If he gets beat, it won't be because he's not fit.

"The whole progression in training him was to get through the Triple Crown with the Belmont," Ritchey said. "We wanted him to have a lot of endurance to go the mile and a half. We're at the point where he's physically as fit as he can be. He's a horse that has responded well to what we've done for him."

Afleet Alex likes to lay in midpack and then unleash a strong run on the turn. Going 1 1/2 miles, Rose will have to judiciously dole out that run.

"They'll probably go 49 or 50 [seconds] for a half, which should put him that much closer," Rose said.

Afleet Alex's sensibility will help his cause.

"He rates so kindly that I don't think the distance will ever be a problem, because he'll relax and lope along and make one good three-eighths of a mile run," Ritchey said. "He still needs to make a good three-eighths of a mile run, but because he's going a mile and a half, and they'll already have gone a good distance by then, his run probably won't be as dramatic as the Arkansas Derby."

Giacomo has the long, loping stride indicative of a horse who should handle 1 1/2 miles. And his sire, Holy Bull, was a terror at Belmont Park. The question for Giacomo is whether his late run can be as effective in a race whose pace will be considerably slower than the Derby.

"It looks like the mile and a half will suit him," said his trainer, John Shirreffs. "Traditionally in the Belmont, speed does well at a mile and a half. There should be a more compact field. It won't be as spread out as the Derby.

"Giacomo's got a big move in him. He accelerates really well. But with him, what you use at the beginning, you won't have at the end. It's sort of a balancing act."

Of the newcomers, the one accorded the best chance is Reverberate, who was second in the Peter Pan Stakes two weeks ago. Although Reverberate is making his first start in a Grade 1 race, he has improved sharply in recent months since adding blinkers. He also has a running style that should put him close to a moderate pace.

"He's better with a target," said Sal Russo, who trains Reverberate. "I'm not too worried about how he'll perform Saturday. I just hope I don't knock him out for the rest of the year. I wish the Belmont was two weeks from now. He's a nice colt. He's improving with every start."

Trainer Nick Zito, who won the Belmont last year with Birdstone, has three in the field - Andromeda's Hero, Indy Storm, and Pinpoint. Andromeda's Hero, like Birdstone, skipped the Preakness after finishing eighth in the Derby. Pinpoint comes off a win in the Sir Barton Stakes, which Sarava used as his prep before winning the 2002 Belmont.

Southern Africa most recently won the Lone Star Derby, making him the only horse in this Belmont, other than Afleet Alex and Giacomo, with a graded stakes win.

Chekhov was fourth as the favorite in the Peter Pan. He has won once in five starts.

Watchmon has won once in six starts. He was second in a Belmont allowance race on May 22.

A. P. Arrow and Nolan's Cat finished one-two in a maiden race at Churchill Downs May 14.

The Belmont is the 11th race on a 13-race card that begins at noon Eastern and is scheduled to finish at 7:50 p.m. Post time for the Belmont is scheduled for 6:38. The race will be seen on NBC in a 90-minute telecast that begins at 5:30.

There is a guaranteed pool of $1 million for the pick six, which begins on the sixth race, and another $1 million guarantee for a pick four that begins on the eighth race. The Belmont is the final leg of both wagers.