06/05/2002 11:00PM

A crown and country await


ELMONT, N.Y. - The Triple Crown Diner on Jericho Turnpike has nothing special planned for Saturday night after the Belmont Stakes, whether or not War Emblem comes through.

"Every night here is special," said Sammy, the rightfully proud manager.

Everything there is gleaming chrome, bright floors, new tables and booths, which is as it should be, since the Triple Crown Diner is less than two years old. As for theme decor, a photograph of Tiznow winning the 2001 Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park leans against a window, just inside the entrance.

No worry. There is plenty of time to acquire atmosphere. As every racing fan knows, all things having to do with the Triple Crown require a considerable amount of patience. It has been 24 years, five Presidents, and god knows how many Yankee managers since Affirmed defeated Alydar in the 1978 Belmont Stakes to win the last Triple Crown of the 20th century.

There have been 11 altogether, most of them clustered in the 1930's, the 1940's, and the 1970's, giving rise and fall to arguments over how hard or how easy it is to win the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes. Some went out of their way to make it even more difficult than it already was.

War Admiral held up the start of the 1937 Belmont for eight minutes and carved a chunk out of his own hoof before the field was sent along. He won by three, but there was blood on the ground in the winner's circle.

In 1943, with an air raid warning sign displayed near the Belmont finish line, Count Fleet beat a pair of token opponents by 25 lengths and set a race record that stood for 14 years. He also banged himself in his right fore ankle and never raced again.

Even Citation, the consummate pro, stumbled at the start of the 1948 Belmont Stakes before righting the ship and winning off by eight. The lesson is simple. With a mile and a half to deal with any tribulations, the best horse will win the Belmont and require no excuse.

More often than not, it is the mile and one-half itself that withers the heart of a potential Triple Crown winner. Unlike a standard 94x50-foot basketball court, or the football field at 100 yards long and 160 feet wide, the Triple Crown field of play changes from jewel to jewel. This time around, War Emblem is playing on Jerry Porcelli's ground. Porcelli is Belmont's track superintendent. As such, his mandate is to present the players on Saturday with a fair, safe surface on which to make history, or not. The four-inch top layer of the Belmont course is 89 percent Long Island quarry sand, 11 percent silt and clay. As of Wednesday evening, Porcelli was faced with the possibility of thunderstorms and one to two inches of rain between the draw and the dance. For race day, he said, the sun would be out and the wind would be blowing from east-southeast at 8-12 mph.

"That's usually not the nicest drying wind, because your picking up a little moisture off the water," Porcelli said from his third-floor clubhouse office, the best seat in the huge house. "But I'll be shocked if it's not fast by Saturday afternoon."

This is Porcelli's first Belmont Stakes as head man after working his way through the ranks. He started in 1974 as a laborer with the infield crew, shoveling the displaced soil from the cushion back onto the track from beneath the rails. In 1975 he helped bury Ruffian. In 1978 he stood on the turf course, right on the finish line, when Affirmed hit the wire just in front of Alydar.

"I was here in 1973 as a fan," Porcelli said. "My dad and I showed up without seats. So we walked around trying to find a place where we could see the race, and plopped ourselves right in that corner."

He pointed just below his office to the lip of the clubhouse loges, a cantilevered tray of seats hanging out over the lower floors, just past the finish line.

"As Secretariat came down the stretch, we could actually feel the grandstand rock," Porcelli said. "I still get a chill when I think about it."

Twenty-four years ago, Affirmed stirred those same feelings. His performance was flawless, and if he ends up the last Triple Crown winner for another 24 years, no one has a right to complain.

But fans need a fix. Patrice Wolfson, who bred and raced Affirmed with her husband, Lou, thinks that it's about time the game had another Triple Crown winner, as long as he can eventually stand comparison to past champions.

"He's exciting, this one," Patrice Wolfson said, referring to the freewheeling War Emblem. "He's a little bit different from the ones who've come close the last few years, like Charismatic and Real Quiet. War Emblem reminds me a little of the way Seattle Slew handled himself.

"But just winning these three races proves nothing, as far as I'm concerned," Wolfson added. "If War Emblem wins, he'd better go on to do even more great things."