05/16/2004 11:00PM

After all the near-misses . . .

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BALTIMORE - The stars have aligned. All the signs are in place. Greatness has come to visit the racing game - this time in a deceptively plain package - and the game had better be ready for the ride.

Forget for a moment that Smarty Jones already has penetrated the upper reaches of media exposure. Let's face it . . . it's not really that hard to get on TV anymore (Omarosa, your time is up), and celebrities these days come cheaper by the Hilton.

Smarty Jones, on the other hand, has begun to percolate into the soil of the American sports culture. He has come to represent that perfect storm of fame, distilled from a concoction of talent, backstory, and accessibility. And, like most great tales, the closer you look and the slower you read, the better it gets.

In the twilight hours after the 2004 Preakness masterpiece of Smarty Jones, the following things occurred:

Stewart Elliott, a stranger until now to the limelight, found the showmanship to present his colt squarely to the infield crowd on their turf-course walk to the winner's circle, priming impromptu chants of "Smarty! Smarty! Smarty!" that could be heard on the Northern Parkway.

Later, after Smarty Jones got his legs and feet thoroughly washed by groom Mario Arriaga, a man leaned down and picked up a handful of soapy wood chips, showed them to a companion and shoved them in his pocket.

Mike Pegram, the owner and ultimate racing fan who nearly won a Triple Crown in 1998 with Real Quiet, floated through the crowd at the Preakness barn glowing like a kid with a new toy, despite the fact that he had lost the Sir Barton Stakes that day with odds-on favorite Preachinatthebar. Smarty Jones cured the blues.

"I'll tell you what," Pegram beamed. "After what I saw today, I feel 31 years younger."

As darkness descended, and the cicadas stopped raining from the trees, John Servis was asked if a visiting Maryland politician could have his photo taken with the trainer and Smarty Jones. At the time, the colt had his nose deep in a tub of mash.

"You can't have the horse, but you can have the trainer," Servis said with a good-sport grin. "If I've learned anything at all, it's that you never pull a horse away from his feed."

By now we know this about Smarty Jones. Foreign soil does not bother him (eight wins, five tracks), the elements are of no concern (the chill of January at Aqueduct, sultry Maryland in May), and even the Old Testament has weighed in with both a plague of insects and a Midwestern monsoon. Each time, Smarty's reaction was downright presidential. Bring 'em on.

Unfortunately, there are no fresh contenders left among the leading members of his generation. Sure, there may be a movement building for Royal Assault after his Sarava-like Sir Barton. Word has it that Michael Dickinson has hired Harry Potter to fine-tune Tapit for the Belmont. And there must be some way for Rock Hard Ten to find 12 lengths in three weeks. After all, that's only four lengths per week.

"Patrick was right," said Jason Orman, trainer of Rock Hard Ten. "It looks like we picked the wrong year to have a good 3-year-old."

Orman was quoting that great French philosopher, M. Biancone, also known for training Lion Heart. Still, let's run the Belmont anyway, since there may be something out there Smarty Jones has yet to handle. Something truly testing like, um, well . . . how about a perfect spring day on Long Island? Track tight and true. Temperature around 75. Solid field surrounding him, stocked with noble speedballs and committed stayers, all of them perfect at the gate, and no shoes lost.

Jerry Bailey, after dismounting Eddington last Saturday, did his best to hype the next episode of the series.

"Sometimes," he warned, "we'll see a horse win the Preakness like that and it's a different story in the Belmont."

And he is right. To summon a phrase from an old song, our hearts have been broken in too many pieces, thanks to Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, and Funny Cide over the last, lost decade of the Triple Crown. But here we go again, victims of an abusive relationship, like a bunch of Carmela Sopranos ready to give Tony another chance.

Maybe, just maybe, Smarty Jones fits another model. Never mind the comparisons to the 11 Triple Crown winners. Turn instead to those fine champions who had all their bad luck in the Derby before they could prove their superiority in the Preakness and Belmont.

From some angles, the list is every bit as impressive. Native Dancer, Damascus, Little Current, Risen Star, and Point Given come immediately to mind. Clearly, they were the best of their generation and would have been welcome additions to the ranks of Triple Crown winners. Somehow, though, through pace, trouble, or emotional meltdown, the Derby fell through the cracks.

Smarty Jones dodged the dark karma of the Derby by being toughest on a rough day. The rest looks like gravy. As John Servis says, "Nothing seems to bother him. Everything I throw at him, he comes back for more."

That is clear, but let's not be greedy. One more will do just fine.