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All bets covered in Belmont drama

How big is tomorrow's 136th running of the Belmont Stakes (Channel 7, 5:30 p.m.)? So big that NBC doesn't have to promote it or gussy up the telecast, highlighted by a 6:38 p.m. post time. Smarty Jones's quest to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978 has captured not only the public's imagination but also accomplished the goal of all TV sports departments: It's drawn the casual fan to the Big Event.

Nine times since 1978, a Derby-Preakness winner has come up short at Belmont. Each time, we've tuned in to see if history will be made; each failure has ratcheted up the interest.

NBC's broadcast crew is savoring being part of the action tomorrow. Here's what some of them were doing 26 years ago:

* Producer David Michaels: "I was working for the US Senate and watched the race with maybe 10 other staffers."

* Race-caller Tom Durkin: "I was calling races at Quad City Downs in East Moline, Ill."

* Handicapper Bob Neumeier: "I probably was in Calgary or Edmonton, doing play-by-play in the World Hockey Association for the New England Whalers."

* Handicapper Mike Battaglia: "I was calling races at Churchill Downs."

* Host Tom Hammond: "I was standing behind Chick Anderson at Belmont as he called the race."

NBC didn't need to prepare a bunch of special features for tomorrow's telecast. Everything revolves around the main story line: Can Smarty Jones win the Triple Crown?

To wit:

* Ratings. Michaels says the viewing audience could match that of last week's "American Idol," which attracted better than 30 million viewers.

* What can go wrong? Neumeier presents the case for an upset: "It's not impossible. If there's a sport where there's no such thing as a cinch, it's horse racing. Rock Hard Ten was under-raced going into the Preakness. He's just coming into his own. He ran hopelessly wide in the Preakness. Smarty Jones could take a step backwards in this race even though you can't criticize anything he's done to this point. I think there are two horses with a chance to beat Smarty Jones: Rock Hard Ten and Purge. I think there are more variables here from a racing point of view than meet the eye, and I would not be shocked if there's an upset."

* The tension. Neumeier: "I've been in the pit, walking over [from the paddock] with the horses. There's a sense of history among fans and viewers. It's a truly big moment. You can feel the tension."

* Place in history. Hammond: "If Smarty Jones wins, his achievement stamps him as great. Where he fits with the other greats is yet to be written."

* Betting logic. Many racegoers will buy a $2 win ticket on Smarty Jones and hope to keep it as a souvenir. For those looking for a price, here's Neumeier's take: "There are only three horses I think should be considered: Smarty Jones, Rock Hard Ten, and Purge. Smarty has beaten Purge twice and Rock Hard Ten once -- decisively. I can't sit back and make a reasoned case against Smarty Jones. All the hype will guarantee he goes off at 1-5 or 2-5, and every Aunt Mathilda will have a win ticket. There's no betting strategy with him winning that attracts me. Not betting the race at all is a prudent course . . . or you can go shopping. After all, that's the American thing to do."

Thus, Neumeier will wager "$20 in increments. [You might also say he'll bet in $20 increments.] I'm going to make the case that Rock Hard Ten can somehow win the race. He may be 5-1 or 6-1. So I'm betting $12 of that $20 on him to win. The other $8 will be in four $2 exactas with Smarty over Purge and vice versa. And the same with Smarty and Rock Hard Ten."

He figures history is on his side. "There have only been three Triple Crown winners in my lifetime: Secretariat (1973), Seattle Slew (1977), and Affirmed. The last nine who tried haven't made it.

"That being said, sentimentally, I'm rooting for Smarty Jones."

Along with 30 million viewers.

On the back track

These aren't the best of times for US Track & Field athletes, with ongoing steroid questions lingering and the Olympic Trials just over a month away (July 9-18), so maybe it's not so bad that the Oregon Classic is on ESPN2 head-to-head with the Belmont from 6-7 p.m. . . . USA (home of the Olympic Trials) continues with wrestling tomorrow at 10 a.m. Expect heavy coverage of Rulon Gardner, the Sydney gold medalist who qualified again despite having a toe amputated after suffering frostbite on a snowmobiling trip. NBC has gymnastics trials tomorrow (1-2:30 p.m.) and again Sunday (2-3 p.m.) . . . Sunday's NASCAR MNBA 400 at Dover (FX, 1 p.m.) features a new twist: seats on a bridge over the track on the main straightaway. It should provide a good camera angle, too . . . Thanks to Bill Flynn of Melrose for pointing out that Sox DH David Ortiz [All-Star ballot] isn't the only "local" needing write-in votes. Flynn notes that T.J. Cosgrove, 32, one of the candidates for the last spot in The Golf Channel's "Big Break II," the series with four exemptions on the Nationwide Tour as a prize, originally is from Dunstable. Viewers can vote online at www.thegolfchannel.com . . . "On the Record With Bob Costas" (HBO, 11 p.m.) has a sports aspect tonight with NBA commissioner David Stern as a guest, timely with the NBA Finals tapping off Sunday (Channel 5, 8:30 p.m.). Both TNT and ESPN found positive news in their ratings for the just-concluded NBA conference finals . . . NBC has French Open all weekend, starting with one men's semifinal today (Channel 7, 10 a.m.), with the other on ESPN (1 p.m.). NBC then has both finals: women's tomorrow (Channel 7, 9 a.m.), men's Sunday (9 a.m.).

Bill Griffith's e-mail address is griffith@globe.com

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