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Can 'Valentine' break their hearts?

Anguish leads to insights that the more fortunate never are forced to perceive. When a race has tormented someone as much as the Belmont Stakes has preyed upon trainer Bob Baffert, certain truths are made clear.

Twice Baffert has been denied a Triple Crown and a 10-percent share of a $5-million bonus in the final 100 yards of "The Test of the Champion." In 1997, Touch Gold nailed his Silver Charm inside the sixteenth pole, and the next year the agony was even more gut wrenching. Real Quiet appeared to have the race sewn up at the eighth pole, only to be cut down in the final stride by the rally of Victory Gallop. Margin: a nostril.

"A mile and a half, it's sort of a goofy race, you know," Baffert said last week. "It's a very odd distance for these horses. It's something they're not really used to. I'm sure after they get around [the track], they look down the stretch and they go like 'Wow, you serious?' "

Coming at the end of a grueling three-race series makes the 12-furlong Belmont even more brutal. Horses that have given their best in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes may not have much energy left. As John Ward, trainer of Derby winner Monarchos, said Wednesday, "Basically, what we're looking for here is the last man standing."

Baffert has the 8-5 favorite, Preakness winner Point Given, for Saturday's 133rd Belmont, and Monarchos is the second choice at 5-2. Can these two colts give another big performance before getting a well-deserved vacation? Considering they'll offer little betting value, it may be wise to look elsewhere and try to beat them.

Eddie Mac at the Track landed on Preakness runner-up A P Valentine, one of the few Belmont contenders who may have another forward move left in him. He's also 2-for-2 over the track, has the best distance pedigree in the field and is training brilliantly for Nick Zito.

"We've preached about him over the last few months and he's starting to show everyone why I am so high on him," Zito said after the draw Wednesday. "He's just got this uncanny ability. It's scary. I'm positive he'll run a great race on Saturday."

A P Valentine's sire, A.P. Indy, won the Belmont Stakes in 1992, when he was Horse of the Year. A P Valentine's mother, Twenty Eight Carat, is a daughter of Alydar, who would have won the 1978 Belmont except for the misfortune of having Triple Crown winner Affirmed as his archrival. True, Thunder Gulch, sire of Point Given and longshot Invisible Ink, took the Belmont in 1995, but that was an extremely bad group of 3-year-olds, and Thunder Gulch never seemed to be a true mile-and-a-half animal.

Shin problems delayed A P Valentine's 3-year-old debut and forced Zito to play catch-up to make the Derby. That injury gave him almost no chance to win at Churchill Downs and kept him from coming into his own until the Preakness, when he rallied strongly under Victor Espinoza to be a non-threatening second, 2 1/4 lengths behind Point Given. Making up that deficit in the seemingly endless marathon that is the Belmont shouldn't be that hard, and A P Valentine's likely odds of 5-1 or so make him an overlay.

"This track is home for him, and he loves it here," Zito said. "He's 2-for-2 at Belmont, and it will be nice to be 3-for-3. I think it will be a great Belmont."

If A P Valentine wins, I'll agree.