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Favored Prairie Bayou long on company Belmont field of 14 is second largest

ELMONT, N.Y. — ELMONT, N.Y. -- Prairie Bayou is listed by Don LaPlace, the track oddsmaker at Belmont Park, as the heavy favorite at 8-5 odds to win tomorrow's Belmont Stakes.

But the horse hasn't scared away much opposition.

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A field of 14, tied for the second largest in the 125-year history of the race, was entered yesterday. A record 15 horses started in 1983. The 1875 Belmont also drew 14.

2& "Quite unusual," said Mack Miller,

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trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Sea Hero, whose winning chances weren't enhanced by the bulky field. His horse drew gate 11. Only one other horse, Conquistador Cielo in 1982, has won from that post.

"There's just no fancy horse this year like Secretariat or Seattle Slew. Everyone wants to take a shot."

Added Frank Alexander, trainer of fourth choice Cherokee Run: "I don't know what more Prairie Bayou could do. He won the Blue Grass. He won the Preakness. He was second in the Kentucky Derby. He has been first or second in each of his seven starts this year. But, still, he's like Rodney Dangerfield. He gets no respect."

At the draw yesterday, the hardy gelding, who wins, but doesn't turnin sensational times, got lucky. He drew post 5, the second winningest Belmont post position.

But he still wasn't as lucky as expected pacesetter Cherokee Run. The Florida-bred colt, who was second in the Preakness, drew the rail, the starting point that has produced more Belmont winners -- 21 --than any other post.

"I didn't care what we got as long as it wasn't outside," Alexander said. "We drew 16 in the Derby with another horse [Wallenda], then 12 [the extreme outside] in the Preakness with Cherokee Run. Now I'm feeling very confident. We got a good post. We can save ground. My horse has natural speed. The question is whether he can get the 1 1/2 -mile distance. When I first got him, he was thought of as just a sprinter. But then the first time I ran him, he came from off the pace and won. The key to getting him to go the distance is getting him to relax. I think he will. You can't be fighting a horse for the first mile and then expect him to win. If El Bakan [the only other speed horse who drew gate 8] wants the lead, he can have it.

"Since the Preakness, my horse has matured. He's had a nice progression in his races, from a mile in the Derby Trial [which he won] to 1 3/16 miles in the Preakness [beaten half-length] to 1 1/2 miles in the Belmont. They were spaced out with three weeks between races.

"Chris Antley [the jockey] said he felt sharper and stronger underneath him when he worked him the other day than he did before the Preakness. He worked him with finger-tip control. We're going to be away from traffic problems [on the front end]. I just hope the closers get bunched up [turning for home]."

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Of the top three choices, all are stretch runners -- Prairie Bayou, Sea Hero and newcomer Virginia Rapids.

Unlike Alexander, Allen Jerkens, trainer of Virginia Rapids, said he thinks a horse's stamina in a race like the Belmont comes from pedigree, not running style.

"A horse can't go this far [12 furlongs] if he doesn't have it in his genes," Jerkens said.

In this regard, Cherokee Run is suspect. Even though his sire, Runaway Groom, won the Travers Stakes (at 10 furlongs), he is a son of Blushing Groom, whose get are often brilliant milers like Arazi. On the bottom side, the pedigree of his dam, Cherokee Dame, is filled with the names of horses like Groomstick, winner of the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship, and Cherokee Fellow, whose get are noted for speed rather than stamina.

But Virginia Rapids, Jerkens said, has just the type of distance pedigree required of a Belmont winner. His sire, Riverman, recently sired his 100th stakes winner, most of which won at a mile to 1 1/2 miles. His dam, Virginiana, is by English Derby winner Sir Ivor.

"The thing I like about my colt," Jerkens said, "is that he can make a move, then pause slightly, then move again. He's done that three times now. He's gotten to be pretty good."

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Jerkens said it's "the two Triple Crown horses," Prairie Bayou and Sea Hero, that he's worried about, and not Cherokee Run.

NOTES: Jerkens-trained Devil His Due has been made the 8-5 early choice to win the $500,000 Nassau County Handicap, which has a 4:43 p.m. post time on the Belmont card. Other starters and odds: Strike the Gold (3-1), Missionary Ridge (7-2), West by West (5-1), Offbeat (8-1), Valley Crossing (15-1), Honest Ensign (15-1) and Sand Lizard (20-1). . . . A record 302 simulcast outlets are taking bets on the Belmont. . . . The track is offering a "Salute to Secretariat" tomorrow in honor of the 20th anniversary of the horse's Triple Crown victory. Owner Penny Chenery drew the post positions yesterday for the Belmont Stakes and Nassau County Handicap. She said the most unusual request she received from being associated with the horse was an entrepreneur who wanted to package Secretariat's manure and sell it as souvenirs. . . . Prairie Bayou is the fifth Belmont starter for Loblolly Stable. It won with Temperence Hill in 1980 and has been second (Pine Circle, 1984), third (Pine Bluff, 1992) and seventh (Lost Mountain, 1991).

THE BELMONT STAKES

What: 125th Belmont Stakes, third leg of Triple Crown.

When: Tomorrow, 5:31 p.m.

Where: Belmont Park, Elmont, N.Y.

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TV: Chs. 13, 7, 4:30 p.m.


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