NEW YORK (AP) – The Triple Crown won’t be on the line in the Belmont Stakes, but the “Test of the Champion” is shaping up as one of the better showdowns in recent years: Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo vs. Preakness winner Afleet Alex.

And if you’re looking for an edge, history says go with Afleet Alex. In four of the last five Belmonts featuring winners of the first two legs of the Triple Crown, it’s been the Preakness winner who’s come out on top.

“Whatever happens, it will be a great race,” Afleet Alex trainer Tim Ritchey said. “And that’s what horse racing needs.”

What racing really wants is its first Triple Crown champion since Affirmed in 1978. This year, though, Giacomo vs. Afleet Alex after three straight failed Triple tries – and six in the past eight years – could be an exciting diversion.

Last year, after Birdstone beat Smarty Jones by a length in the Belmont in front of a record crowd of 120,139, even winning owner Marylou Whitney, trainer Nick Zito and jockey Edgar Prado apologized for spoiling Smarty’s Triple party.

Two years ago, it was Empire Maker over Funny Cide, and in 2002 it was War Emblem stumbling at the start and finishing eighth.

“We have every expectation that this will be another sensational Belmont Stakes day in every category,” New York Racing Association vice president Bill Nader said.

Don’t expect a record crowd, but 73,857 turned out for the 2001 Belmont, when Preakness winner Point Given defeated Derby winner Monarchos.

In the other matchups in which the Preakness winner beat the Derby winner, it was Tabasco Cat over Go for Gin (1994), Hansel over Strike the Gold (1991) and Risen Star over Winning Colors (1988).

In 1993, Colonial Affair beat Derby winner Sea Hero (seventh) and Preakness winner Prairie Bayou broke down during the race.

Afleet Alex, ridden by Jeremy Rose, is the likely favorite in what is shaping up as a nine-horse field. The colt with seven victories in 11 starts was expected to arrive at Belmont Park from Pimlico during the weekend.

Giacomo, who will be ridden by Mike Smith, has just two victories in nine starts. The gray colt has been training at Hollywood Park in California, and is expected to arrive in New York on Wednesday.

Trainer John Shirreffs said Giacomo came out of the Preakness in fine shape, and the colt enjoyed returning to his home base for a few weeks.

“We wouldn’t get on the plane and go back to New York unless we felt the horse was doing really well,” Shirreffs said. “So it forces you to look at the condition of the horse very closely. … He’s held his weight, he’s eating well and he’s traveling well on the racetrack. From what we can see, he looks very good.”

Scrappy T, who nearly knocked Afleet Alex off his feet at the top of the stretch in the Preakness, appears headed to the 1-mile Belmont.

“We’ve already shown we can match up with them,” Scrappy T trainer Robert Bailes said of Afleet Alex and Giacomo. “The question is whether my horse can go a mile-and-a-half.”

Also set for the Belmont are two 3-year-olds trained by Nick Zito, Andromeda’s Hero and Pinpoint; Lone Star Derby winner Southern Africa, and Chekhov. Possibles include Sort It Out, Reverberate and A.P. Arrow.

Ritchey seems excited about a race that features a 50-1 Derby winner in Giacomo against his colt, who is coming off a remarkable athletic performance. The trainer is predicting a big crowd for the rubber match.

“Certainly, this race has gotten a lot of publicity,” Ritchey said. “A big crowd? It wouldn’t surprise me – it depends on the day, too. But I think anyone who’s a fan of horse racing will look forward to seeing the Belmont to see just what’s going to happen.”

Afleet Alex will spend his week at Belmont with a few two-a-day gallops as the colt tunes up for the longest race of his career.

“Horses in this country don’t normally run that distance, so it’s different,” Ritchey said. “The rider has to be a lot more patient in the race and your horse has to be able to relax – and I feel I have both. I have a rider who was very patient in the Preakness and my horse will rate and relax as long as you want him to do until you ask him to run. So I don’t think the distance will be a problem.”

Ritchey would like to see Afleet Alex stalk the pace and make his patented run in the final three eighths of a mile. Shirreffs believes Giacomo is at his best in longer races.

“He has a nice long stride, he covers the ground well, he relaxes behind horses and next to horses,” Shirreffs said. “And he seems to be always coming at the end.”

So there’s no Triple try this year. A little rivalry, though, may be a good thing.

AP-ES-06-03-05 0041EDT


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