When he lost as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, Chief's Crown disappointed many people who had thought he might be a great horse. Now the same people are questioning his stamina and wondering if he might be a "sucker horse."

These criticisms are as erroneous as the overblown early season hype for him was. Chief's Crown is a good horse but hardly a great one. He is the best member of a very mediocre equine generation. He doesn't have the raw speed that would have been needed to challenge Spend a Buck in the Derby. He wasn't quite good enough to cope with the double-barreled task he faced in the Preakness -- fighting Eternal Prince's speed and holding off Tank's Prospect's stretch run.

But under reasonably fair circumstances, he figures to beat the country's best 3-year-olds at a classic distance. Saturday, he should encounter favorable conditions against a weak field, and he finally will assert his superiority. I think he is an absolute cinch to win the 117th running of the Belmont Stakes.

Even though he weakened in the stretch at both Churchill Downs and Pimlico, Chief's Crown is the ideal type of horse for the Belmont's 1 1/2-mile distance. This demanding route favors neither speedballs nor stretch-runners, but rather horses with some speed who can maintain a steady, even pace.

That's Chief's Crown: When he won the Flamingo Stakes at Hialeah this winter, he ran his first four quarters in :24 3/5, :24 1/5, :23 4/5, :23 4/5, and the final eighth of a mile in :12 1/5. Given a horse with this running style and tractability, jockey Angel Cordero Jr. can position Chief's Crown behind the speed horses, wait for then to weaken and grind past them to take command midway through the race.

Most of the horses considered his main rivals look like shaky propositions at 1 1/2 miles. Tank's Prospect, the Preakness winner, is the type of one-run horse who seldom does well in the Belmont; even his trainer, Wayne Lukas, expressed reservations about his suitability for the distance. Eternal Prince is a one- dimensional speed horse, a type that almost never succeeds in the Belmont.

Creme Fraiche and El Basco will get some backing on the basis of their photo finish with Spend a Buck in the Jersey Derby, but the fact that they couldn't catch the leader through a 27 3/5-second final quarter suggests that they don't want to go the Belmont distance.

Of the remaining contenders, Stephan's Odyssey and Fast Account do look as if they should be able to handle the distance Saturday. But after running second in the Kentucky Derby, Stephan's Odyssey came back to run a mediocre fourth in the Peter Pan Stakes here.

He has always been an in-and-outer, and he may not be ready to deliver his best effort. So by the process of elimination, that leaves Fast Account as the main competition for Chief's Crown.

The California colt finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby, and might have been second but for a bumping incident in the stretch. He has the pedigree and the even-paced style for the Belmont, as well as an ace jockey in Chris McCarron. That's the Belmont exacta: Chief's Crown and Fast Account.