06/04/2004 12:00AM

Welsch's Belmont Stakes analysis

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1 Rock Hard Ten
2 Smarty Jones
3 Purge
4 Eddington

After spending countless hours studying the past performances and calling upon years and years of handicapping experience, it is my professional opinion that Smarty Jones is the most likely winner of the Belmont Stakes.

Surely nobody really needs me or any of the other experts on these pages to tell them Smarty Jones is the logical choice to complete the Triple Crown with a win in the Belmont. And the best advice any of us could probably give under the circumstances would be to pass the race and root for Smarty to make racing history.

But there are two compelling reasons to bet against Smarty Jones, despite his seeming invincibility and dominance in this field. One is obviously the win price, which will not exceed 2-5. The second is that history has proven time and time again, especially recently, that winning the Triple Crown is a daunting task and that the extra quarter-mile of the Belmont has often proven to be a great equalizer for even the best of horses.

Of his eight rivals, Rock Hard Ten appears to have the best chance of springing the upset should Smarty Jones regress off his two Triple Crown victories or find the extra distance just a bit out of his reach. A lightly raced but very talented colt, Rock Hard Ten was beaten over 11 lengths in the Preakness but probably lost nearly half that much when trapped extremely wide for much of the race. Rock Hard Ten figures to improve from the experience, considering the Preakness was only the fourth start of his career. He is also bred to handle 12 furlongs.

Purge has already chased Smarty Jones home on two previous occasions, but will alter tactics in their third meeting and attempt to rate off the pace instead of trying to take the race from gate to wire. The key question may be whether he can handle this distance.

Eddington has been pointed for this race all along by trainer Mark Hennig and, like Rock Hard Ten, can only improve from his Preakness experience. He is another whose breeding would suggest he will not be compromised by the added ground.

Of the longshots, Master David would probably have the best chance of hitting the board.