05/20/2002 12:00AM

Advice for Salman: Enjoy the ride


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - In case anyone has forgotten, this Triple Crown business only brings misery and pain. Better we should strive to witness five planets align in the Western sky, as they did near a crescent moon last week, than wish for a horse who can win the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes.

It has been 24 years since Affirmed lit the heavens with his final blow to a dead-game Alydar. For the subsequent 23, at intervals of agonizing grief, we've had our hearts ripped out and mercilessly stomped into sawdust.

First there was Spectacular Bid and his safety pin. Velcro, anyone? Then came Pleasant Colony, dragging out for the Belmont Stakes, a hollow shell of his Derby glory. Chris McCarron took the rap for Alysheba when Bet Twice really was to blame, while Sunday Silence tried to steal the cheese in Easy Goer's backyard. The fool.

In 1997, Silver Charm did everything but lay down and crawl to the wire, only to be stabbed in the back by Touch Gold. Then came Real Quiet.

He still thinks he won. At least, that's what they whispered to him in his stall at Belmont that night.

Charismatic was the most evil blow, three years ago. Here was a horse willing to give his leg, his life, to win for us a Triple Crown. Was it worth it?

Chris Antley wondered the very same thing as he cradled the broken leg.

"History repeats itself," wrote Clarence Darrow. "That's one of the things wrong with history."

The Triple Crown is a cruel, senseless task, visited upon frail horses by selfish men. That said, we now bow before it, hoping against reasonable hope that the horse named War Emblem can rise above the fragile nature of the beast and carry the game another mile and a half.

The emergence of War Emblem as the game's marquee name has been breathtakingly sudden. Before May 4 he was known only for being bought and sold, like a stack of cordwood or a long ton of pig iron. Now his every move is significant, and not just to his trainer and owner, Bob Baffert and Prince Ahmed Salman.

"My heart aches for Mr. Reineman," said Bob Lewis, referring to the Chicago steel man who sold War Emblem to Salman in April. "But I can understand how he feels. Would I have sold a horse to save my business? Yes, I think I would have. Fortunately, I've never been put to that test."

Bob and Beverly Lewis have been tested in other ways. Twice in the last six years they have stood at the edge of the Triple Crown - with Silver Charm and Charismatic - only to be yanked back from the brink with a rude dose of reality.

"The fates, or the circumstances, chose not to smile on us," Bob Lewis said. "But I found that I got over it by Saturday night. You just go on and hope for another chance. We have something like 37 2-year-olds in training right now, so you can see we are enthusiastically trying to get back to do it again."

It was the Monday morning after War Emblem's Preakness, and Bob Lewis was making plane and hotel reservations for New York. He wasn't about to miss the chance to witness a piece of history he came so close to making himself.

"I have only one piece of advice for the prince - calm down," Lewis said. "This is probably going to be the longest three weeks he's ever spent in his life."

Mike Pegram, who rode the Triple Crown tiger with Real Quiet, put the same thing another way.

"The prince will not know what hit him," Pegram said with a laugh. "And he will find out one thing for certain - wherever he wants to hide, they will find him."

During the three weeks between Real Quiet's Preakness and Belmont, Pegram said no to no one. Like Lewis, he was accessible practically around the clock. Whether a member of the ruling family of Saudi Arabia, with his permanent residence in Riyadh, will be able to make the same accommodations remains to be seen.

"If there was a downside," Pegram noted, "the owner has to understand that it's no longer your horse. It's everybody's horse. You've got to share him with the people, and let everybody around you enjoy it."

Real Quiet lost the 1998 Belmont Stakes by the length of Victory Gallop's nose. No owner ever missed the Triple Crown by so little.

"Naturally, I was disappointed after the race," Pegram said. "And it seems like it just happened yesterday. But you never heard me complain or cry. There's been more people walk on the moon than win the Triple Crown. I didn't get a chance to do my moon walk, but I'll tell you what - I was floating in space for three weeks."

Pegram's advice to Salman was simple.

"Let the little boy come out in you," he said. "Act like a kid in a candy store and enjoy it, because you'll never experience anything like it again."