This Belmont Stakes is more than a classic race. It is a classic betting opportunity.

Rarely in his life will a horseplayer get the chance to make money by wagering on a champion. The virtues of champions are ordinarily well-known to the public, and their odds are accordingly low.

But the best 3-year-old in America will go to the post at a price of 5 to 2 or more on Saturday afternoon. I believe that Linkage is, in fact, one of the best 3-year-olds in years, a racehorse in the class of Seattle Slew and Affirmed. With a little luck, he might be trying to complete a sweep of the Triple Crown as they did. But because of overly conservative management and some bad rides, Linkage still has not conclusively demonstrated how good he is. Now his time has come.

A few days ago, I would have said flatly that Linkage was an absolute certainty to win the Belmont. But that was before Conquistador Cielo joined the field. Conquistador Cielo is what racetrackers call a "freak," a horse so brilliant that he virtually transcends ordinary standards of measurement. He almost certainly cannot go the Belmont's 1 1/2-mile distance, but his presence tempers my enthusiasm just a bit. Even so, Linkage is the best bet I have ever seen in a Triple Crown event.

If it weren't for a couple of miscalculations by jockeys, Linkage would have a near-perfect record. He lost the Louisiana Derby when Greg Smith buried him on the deep rail and he could not overcome the track bias. He lost the Preakness three weeks ago when Bill Shoemaker ignored the rail-favoring bias and let Aloma's Ruler steal off to an easy lead on the inside.

The racing world underrates Linkage not only because of these undeserved defeats, but because of the final time of the Preakness. On the surface, 1:55 2/5 didn't look like anything special. But tons of dirt had been dumped on the Pimlico racing strip a couple of weeks before the Preakness, and the track was extraordinarily slow.

On a normal Pimlico track, the Preakness would have been run in 1:53 or faster, with the first two finishers shattering the track record. Everyone would have known how good Aloma's Ruler is, and how extraordinary Linkage is to have run so well against the bias.

But because of this underestimation of the Preakness horses, Conquistador Cielo will be favored Saturday. Monday, he won the Metropolitan Handicap by seven lengths in 1:33 flat--the fourth-fastest mile ever run by a member of his species. It was a performance so awesome that Woody Stephens, ordinarily a conservative trainer, was prompted to take a shot and put the colt in the Belmont five days later.

If Conquistador Cielo can produce this level of performance at 1 1/2 miles, he will win Saturday; but his pedigree suggests strongly that he won't.

His sire, Mr. Prospector, begets horses with blazing speed who can rarely go beyond a mile. None has ever won at the Belmont distance. Conquistador Cielo is so brilliant that his speed might possibly have enabled him to beat an ordinary field (such as the one that contested the Kentucky Derby). But if he is pressured by rivals with the speed and quality of Aloma's Ruler and Linkage, it seems unlikely that he can handle the distance.

As with Conquistador Cielo, there is no assurance that Aloma's Ruler is much more than a miler. The bias at Pimlico regularly carried horses much farther than they could go under normal circumstances, and the pedigree experts have their doubts about him, too. Still, he figures to be a much fitter horse than he was in Baltimore. Aloma's Ruler ought to perform respectably on Saturday, although the way the Preakness was run leaves no doubt that Linkage is the superior horse.

A chasm separates Linkage, Aloma's Ruler and Conquistador Cielo from the rest of the field. Even if the three of them set a hot early pace, the stretch-runners are not good enough to take advantage of it. Certainly, Gato del Sol, the Kentucky Derby winner, is not. Royal Roberto is a fast finisher who may be able to get a piece of the purse.

But this race should belong to Linkage. He has the blood lines and the conditioning to run 1 1/2 miles, and I think he will not only win but win big. If the track stays fast, he can run in 2:26, which would be the second-fastest time in the Belmont's 114-year history and would finally put his ability into proper perspective. It would also be the last time he would ever pay 5 to 2.