06/05/2005 11:00PM

Classic potential still lingers

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - For the promoters of the game, the Triple Crown has become a zero-sum endeavor, with inordinate emphasis placed upon the prospect of a winner, sometimes to the detriment of individual performances.

This is natural, though, since humans tend to court heartbreak. Still, after the emotional Belmont Stakes losses of Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, Charismatic, Real Quiet, and Silver Charm, there is speculation that the Rapture will arrive before another horse wins the Triple Crown.

If Affirmed ends up being the last in a noble line, would that be such a bad thing? At least it would end on a lofty note, way back in 1978, with the door left wideopen if another one like Affirmed comes along. (Fat chance.)

There was a time, though, and not long ago, when winning two of the three legs of the Triple Crown was considered pretty cool, especially if a horse had to run his best and faced down challengers both fresh and familiar. When Preakness winner Afleet Alex and Derby winner Giacomo meet for the third time this Saturday at Belmont Park in the 137th running of the Belmont Stakes, they will be following in a long and honorable tradition of throwing down one more time and paying homage to the purest form of playoff hustle:

Hey, let's see who can win two out of three.

Since 1940, when Bimelech and Gallahadion carved up the Triple Crown between them, there have been 15 such showdowns between horses who have run in all three jewels.

Those convinced that what happened before will have something to do with Saturday's outcome will be pleased to learn that of those 15 climactic Belmonts, 8 were won by the Preakness winner who lost the Derby, 5 went to the Derby winner who lost the Preakness, and 1 went to a horse - Avatar - who was beaten in both the Derby and the Preakness.

(The Belmont that does not fit here came in 1993, when Derby winner Sea Hero phoned it in and Preakness winner Prairie Bayou broke down, leaving the door open for Colonial Affair, who had passed both the Derby and the Preakness.)

Many times, the Belmont winner is a foregone conclusion, at least on paper. Whatever happened to Damascus in the 1967 Derby has yet to be explained, since he beat the other 3-year-olds silly for the rest of the year. Bimelech was 2-5 and probably a short horse when Gallahadion shocked him in the 1940 Derby, at Giacomo-like odds of 35-1, while the powerful Point Given came up shy on seasoning as well in the 2001 Derby. Both Bimelech and Point Given came back to take the Preakness with authority, then later added the Belmont.

Sometimes there truly should have been a Triple Crown winner. With better trips, both Little Current, in 1974, and Risen Star, in 1988, would have won the Derby. Their domination of both the Preakness and the Belmont only made sense.

In 1963, Candy Spots had just enough trouble losing the Derby to Chateaugay to make him a good bet right back in the Preakness. He aired by 3 1/2 lengths, with Chateaugay second. In their Belmont, Candy Spots led with a quarter-mile to run but got weary, and Chateaugay ran him down.

This could be blamed on the fact that Candy Spots won the Jersey Derby between the Preakness and the Belmont, but don't cut him any slack. Once upon a time, that's the way horses were campaigned. In 1942, Alsab made his 30th start in the Kentucky Derby, finishing second to Shut Out, then came back one week later to beat Shut Out in the Preakness. When they met in the Belmont - Alsab prepped with a win in the Withers - Shut Out led all the way around.

Afleet Alex and Giacomo are difficult to typecast. If they have antecedents, their closest matches might be taken from Capot and Ponder in 1949, or Fabius and Needles in 1956.

Capot rocked along behind the miler Olympia in the '49 Derby and appeared on his way before Ponder, closing from last, ran him down to win by three. Right back in the Preakness, Capot had the jump all the way around and won in photo with Palestinian, while Ponder's grinding run fell about three lengths short. Given their styles - and the fact that Ponder had dusted Capot in the Peter Pan a week earlier - Ponder was heavily favored in the Belmont. But Ted Atkinson slowed things to a crawl, and Capot went wire to wire to win by a half.

Needles was another deep closer, and Fabius was a flyer. They traded one-two finishes in the Derby, won by Needles, and the Preakness, in which Fabius took full advantage of the short Pimlico stretch. In the Belmont, however, Needles dropped so far back that historian William H.P. Robertson described him as "a poor bet for the next race on the program." He got up to win by a neck from Career Boy, with Fabius not far behind.

It might be too much to ask, but if Afleet Alex and Giacomo could come down there Saturday like Preakness winner Hansel and Derby winner Strike the Gold did in 1991, with a head between them at the end of the mile and one-half, there will be no complaints here about the lack of a Triple Crown winner.