05/18/2004 11:00PM

Crown looks there for the losing


PHILADELPHIA - This is the one. This has to be the one.

The wait has been quite long enough.

It has been a quarter-century since we last saw a truly dominant 3-year-old. That was Spectacular Bid, trained and ridden by newcomers to the Triple Crown.

Just as Smarty Jones is Pennsylvania through and through, the Bid was all Maryland - from his owners, the Meyerhoffs; to his trainer, Bud Delp; to his jockey, Ronnie Franklin, from the Baltimore suburb of Dundalk.

I contend there has never been a better horse to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown, and not the third.

That Bid was beaten in the Belmont Stakes is all that keeps me from proclaiming Smarty a lock. If the Bid could lose, any horse can lose.

Still, it is hard to envision a scenario that keeps Smarty from winning the Triple Crown. The only people who didn't pick him in the Preakness either did not understand the Kentucky Derby or were just trying to show how smart they were.

The Preakness result speaks for itself. You can watch racing for years and not see a more dominating performance.

For those who didn't quite get the Derby, here is what you missed. Smarty did not have anything like an easy trip. He was in a vise when the horses hit the wire the first time. He intimidated the two horses inside of him on the first turn, made the two outside of him quit on the backstretch, tore after a horse loose on an easy lead at the three-eighths pole and ran right by him in the stretch. It was an awesome display of competitiveness, sustained speed, and acceleration. It was 40 lengths from first to 17th. The other horse, an early chaser of Smarty, was eased.

Horse racing history is replete with upsets that make little sense. This is not like other sports. Basketball teams favored by 35 points may not cover the spread, but they don't lose.

The Bid lost because (a) he stepped on a safety pin, (b) Franklin wasted the colt's energy by chasing an 80-1 shot early in the race, or (c) both. There is no way the Bid lost because he wasn't the best horse - he was, by a lot.

Smarty is the ninth to win the Derby and Preakness since the Bid. In that time, only Alysheba (1987) and Sunday Silence (1989) could be considered great 3-year-olds. But they weren't dominant. Bet Twice and Easy Goer saw to that.

Where is Smarty Jones's Bet Twice or his Easy Goer? There likely won't be a horse in the Belmont who has come within 10 lengths of Smarty Jones.

By June, there are not that many surprises. We pretty much know who can run and who can't.

Yes, there have been some crazy upsets in recent Belmonts. But the favorites in the years of Lemon Drop Kid and Sarava were Charismatic and War Emblem, two horses who got hot at the right time and did not really have much depth to them.

Smarty Jones would appear to have about everything. If the Belmont comes up with no early speed, as seems possible, do not be surprised if Stewart Elliott puts Smarty right on the lead from the start. That would eliminate all chance of trouble. The best horse in front of a long race on a reasonable pace is a prescription for domination.

It is still two long weeks until the longest race any of these 3-year-olds will ever run. Much can happen in that time. In horse racing, anything can happen.

Unless something dramatic happens, however, get ready for a celebration. This is the one. This has to be the one.