ELMONT, N.Y., MAY 27 -- When Housebuster challenges Easy Goer in the one-mile Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park Monday, the two colts could produce the best thoroughbred race of the year to date.

But even if Housebuster's eight-race winning streak is broken in this $500,000 event, he will retain one distinction. He has been managed as judiciously and shrewdly as a racehorse can be.

Just a few weeks ago, owner Bob Levy and trainer Jimmy Croll were being second-guessed from coast to coast over their unwillingness to run Housebuster in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness. They explained, patiently and endlessly, that they didn't want to take the gamble of entering their colt at distances that might be too far for him.

Many fans thought they were being too cautious, but nobody can level that criticism today. They are entering their 3-year-old against a field of older rivals that would be formidable even if Easy Goer wasn't in the lineup. And Easy Goer has been invincible in New York, winning 10 straight stakes here at his home base. It might seem inconsistent that Levy and Croll would be willing to try such a tough challenge in the Met, but as they see it, the difference between this race and the Derby is the difference between a good gamble and a bad gamble.

Croll has said repeatedly that Housebuster "is bred like a sprinter, looks like a sprinter and acts like a sprinter"; a mile would be his maximum effective distance. Making the colt run a route beyond his capabilities could have exhausted him and taken a toll on him for months.

But no harm will come to him even if he loses the Met; his reputation wouldn't suffer if he loses to Easy Goer. And if he were to win the most prestigious race in America at one mile, a distance at which great sires usually excel, his credentials as a future sire would be solidly established.

Moreover, Levy saw weeks ago another reason to take a shot at this race. "When we looked at the nominations for the Met," he said, "we saw that most of the fast sprinters in New York weren't nominated." Housebuster also gets a big weight concession because of his age (113 to Easy Goer's 127).

Easy Goer's trainer Shug McGaughey recognizes this fact. "The biggest thing that concerns me is the strategy -- if Housebuster was to get loose getting 14 pounds," he said. "But Idabel has got speed and I'd think one of the {Wayne} Lukas horses {Dancing Pretense and Criminal Type} would try not to let him get loose. But if nobody is going to take the race to Housebuster, then we might have to."

Can Easy Goer play Housebuster's game? He is best known as a stretch-runner in longer races, such as his Belmont Stakes victory and his narrow loss in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic. But earlier in his career he excelled in shorter races too. The last time he ran a mile he missed the world record by one-fifth of a second on an exceptionally fast track at Aqueduct.