05/22/2003 12:00AM

Crown more valuable for its rarity


ELMONT, N.Y. - The Triple Crown is racing's most valuable icon, and increasingly so, despite - or more probably because of - the rarity of a sweep. In the 25 years since the last Triple Crown, attendance for the classics has increased at Churchill Downs, Pimlico, and Belmont Park, and there are prospects for a record on Belmont Day if the weather is good and the tentative field holds together.

There is no question that "The Funny Cide Story" has great public appeal. All over America, people gather in front of a television set and recount the adventure that led the Boys of Sackatoga to buy a horse and and set up a stable. It's easy to identify with the New Yorkers and to share their joy in successfully reaching for the moon.

It was a different story that unfolded 25 years ago, when Affirmed and Alydar battled magnificently in what came to be known as Thoroughbred racing's greatest rivalry.

They began their rivalry at 2, then marched in triumph after triumph to the classics, which lifted their competition to a new level. Alydar was sluggish during the early stages of the Derby but turned in a corking effort in the Preakness. The Belmont was simply superb, the two colts going the last mile neck-and-neck, with Affirmed the winner by a head.

Not every 3-year-old is able to participate in the Triple Crown. For various reasons, some experience a delay in development and compete in the Second Season. Saturday's $200,000 Peter Pan at nine furlongs brings together a number of interesting Second Season prospects, and one who catches the eye is Nacheezmo. An attractive chestnut son of Carson City, his brief 2-year-old campaign was compromised by sore shins. He has won both of his 3-year-old starts impressively, however, and was particularly sharp in winning last month, going a mile on a muddy track at Aqueduct.

Nacheezmo was purchased for $200,000 at the Keeneland September yearling sales by Ted and Kim Johnson of Oyster Bay, N.Y. Kim Johnson recently finished second in the "Survivor" television series set in Africa. Ted Johnson is a retired investment banker with some past racing experience.

"Nacheezmo has good tactical speed," says veteran trainer Jim Bond. "He's by a sire noted for speed, so we don't know how far he'll go, but we are encouraged. His experience on a muddy track in his last start could serve him well Saturday, for the forecast is for rain."

Bond knows what to do with a Second Season horse who can stay. He had a remarkable run at the historic Travers at Saratoga from 1996 through 1998, winning with Will's Way in 1996, finishing second by a nose to Deputy Commander with Behrens in 1997, and finishing third with Raffie's Majesty in 1998, beaten two noses by Coronado's Quest and Victory Gallop.