05/20/2002 11:00PM

Two try to earn way to Belmont

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - The Belmont Stakes will be no piece of cake for War Emblem. Somewhere, an improving 3-year-old is preparing to spoil his Triple Crown bid. The question is, who?

Two potential sleepers are running Thursday at Hollywood Park: Like a Hero and Azillion meet in the $75,000 Alydar, an overnight stakes with obvious ramifications.

"You hate to look too far ahead, but obviously the Belmont is a thought," said Like a Hero's trainer, Beau Greely. "He's by Pleasant Colony; a mile and a half at Belmont would seem to be his thing."

First things first. Greely understands that before booking a flight to New York, rapidly improving Like a Hero must beat Azillion and three others in the Alydar Stakes at 1 1/8 miles.

Azillion enters the race with murky form. He finished second in the Spiral March 23 at Turfway Park, which was followed by a poor effort in the Blue Grass. Like a Hero has won two straight and hits the Alydar on an upward arc.

"If [Like a Hero] is going to be a good horse, he'll show it Thursday. It's time to find out how good he is," said Greely.

Three starts into his career, signals are good. Like a Hero finished second Feb. 19 in a maiden sprint, overcame trouble March 24 to win a maiden race at a mile, and improved further on April 19 to topple allowance foes at 1 1/16 miles.

For Like a Hero, the farther, the better. The same may not be true for War Emblem, who will enter the Belmont with suspicion regarding his ability to stay 1 1/2 miles.

"That's the question everyone has," said Greely, adding he believes some trainers will consider the Belmont because War Emblem may be vulnerable at the distance. "Hopefully, that's an option for us."

While the mid-90's Beyer Speed Figures earned by Like a Hero indicate he has a lot of catching up to do, there is no doubting his tenacity.

"He hasn't been winning by a long margin, but both times he had trouble and overcame it," noted Greely.

In his maiden win, Like a Hero was in traffic at the quarter pole, then rallied to get up by a neck. Last out, he was squeezed at the break, ran off, found trouble again at the quarter pole, rallied wide, and won by a nose.

The knock on Like a Hero's form is that the horse he beat, Golden Hare, returned Sunday and finished third as the 6-5 favorite in an allowance race.

Laffit Pincay rides Like a Hero, who has been training super.

His main rival Thursday is Azillion. Azillion's subsequent dud after the Spiral, when he was beaten 31 lengths while finishing last in the Blue Grass at Keeneland, remains a mystery.

"If he runs third, beaten five lengths, you can live with that" trainer Bob Hess said. "I expected he had bled, or was sick, or injured. It was none of the above, which is good, but it doesn't answer the question."

Azillion came out of the Keeneland race drained. "He really got knocked out, he lost a bunch of weight, and was really tired afterward," Hess said. "He's doing very well now, but until he comes and runs a good one, we'll have to wait and see."

The colt's workouts since returning to California have been inconsistent, and Hess enters Thursday with enough trepidation that he is reluctant to commit to a possible start in the Belmont. If Azillion runs well Thursday, if he comes out of the race well, if things look right, only then would the Belmont be considered.

"If, if, if . . . there are a lot of hurdles to overcome," said Hess.

Azillion, imported from England last fall and one of the second-tier 3-year-olds this winter at Santa Anita, will be ridden by Eddie Delahoussaye.

War Emblem led all the way in the Derby and most of the way in the Preakness, and in the Alydar another Bob Baffert-trained 3-year-old - Wheels N Wings - is expected to lead the way under Tyler Baze. He was squeezed at the start last time, and unable to utilize his speed against older allowance runners.

Two other starters Thursday are the maiden World Light, runner-up his only start, and Pick of the Valley, a claimer. The Alydar goes as the second race on an eight-race card.

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