05/30/2002 11:00PM

Crown? Great. Long career? Better.


NEW YORK - Can War Emblem's bid for the Triple Crown rekindle general interest in racing for more than a day or two? That probably depends more on how long War Emblem sticks around after Saturday's Belmont Stakes than whether he actually wins the race.

The previous three racing seasons have featured a star 3-year-old who was supposed to be a magnet for the game, but all three stories had highly unsatisfying endings.

Charismatic broke down bidding for the Crown in the 1999 Belmont and never raced again. The next year, Fusaichi Pegasus was supposed to be Hall of Fame material, but after winning the Derby and losing the Preakness, he won only the Jerome and was retired without even a divisional title. Last year, Point Given was developing a real following after consecutive victories in the Preakness, Belmont, Haskell, and Travers, then suddenly went off to stud with an injury and was a fading memory by Breeders' Cup time.

It remains unclear whether Fusaichi Pegasus and Point Given were physically eligible to return for 4-year-old campaigns or whether their careers were prematurely curtailed as prudent financial decisions. Their early departures left a bitter aftertaste.

It's hard to get one's hopes up about this year's version of the Horse Who Could Save Racing on either the soundness or financial fronts. War Emblem already is running with bone chips and having his joints injected. He has the same owner who didn't want to risk bringing Point Given back to the races, and it's hard to imagine a racing scenario that could leave him significantly more valuable than he will be if he makes it to the winner's circle Saturday.

If he loses, at least he and his handlers will have something to avenge. Before Charismatic, the six most recent Derby-Preakness winners who lost the Belmont all came back and won important races, confirming and adding to their credentials and giving their fans more than a few weeks to cheer.

After losing the 1998 Belmont by just a nose, Real Quiet didn't race for nine months and lost his first two starts back, but then won a pair of Grade 1 races, the Pimlico Special and the Hollywood Gold Cup. Silver Charm was away for six months after his 1997 Belmont bid came up three-quarters of a length short, but raced 15 times at 4 and 5, winning the Dubai World Cup, the Strub, and five other races.

All three of the unsuccessful Crown bidders in the 1980's returned with important victories against older horses. Pleasant Colony won the Woodward; Alysheba had a magnificent career culminating in a Breeders' Cup Classic victory at 4; Sunday Silence avenged his Belmont loss by beating Easy Goer in the 1989 Classic and won the Californian at 4.

The greatest second act of all was Spectacular Bid's. Rather than being hustled off to stud or retired because of his safety-pin prick before the Belmont, he raced 13 more times, winning 12 races, six of them Grade 1's, and setting five track records.

Every one of these horses increased his value and appeal by campaigning long after the Triple Crown was over. Unfortunately, there is less demand than ever from breeders for a horse to prove himself with a full career on the track. The situation is even worse abroad, where the biggest stables routinely whisk horses off to stud after a couple of important victories, falsely claiming that these horses have proved all that they need to prove. Between the increasing fragility of the breed and the economics of stallion syndication, greatness is being redefined in terms of weeks rather than years.

The difficulty of winning the Triple Crown is clear from the 23 runnings since Seattle Slew and Affirmed did it back to back in 1977 and 1978. Yet something else about our last two Triple Crown winners - and Spectacular Bid in 1979 - may be even more impressive: All three were champions at 2, 3, and 4. We probably will see a Triple Crown long before we see that kind of true greatness again.