05/28/2008 12:00AM

Crowned heads rarely rested

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While Big Brown's foot is in the hands of experts, the rest of us are left to ponder his place in history, should he recover and win the Belmont. Bearing in mind that the penny is practically worthless, here's my two cents on how the quality of a Triple Crown winner should be measured.

Not by the Triple Crown.

The Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont are restricted races compressed into a five-week window. The winner has beaten only members of his own foal crop under highly unusual circumstances. They can battle worthy opponents and run fast or parade around in a virtual vacuum. Matters little. It is what comes after the Crown that seals the deal, or leaves a reputation dangling.

In his first start after winning the 1919 Belmont, Sir Barton (21-9-5-5 post-Triple Crown) was beaten by Purchase in the Dwyer Stakes. This turned out to be no embarrassment. Sam Hildreth, who won the Belmont Stakes seven times, called Purchase the best horse he ever trained.

Six of Sir Barton's nine wins after the Triple Crown came in Maryland, while his five second-place finishes included the 1920 Kenilworth Park Gold Cup, a match race in which he was easily beaten by the 3-year-old Man o' War.

After Gallant Fox (6-5-1-0 post-Crown) added a four-horse Belmont to earlier wins in the 1930 Preakness and Derby (in that order), he raced six more times and called it a day. At least he won them all but the Travers, when Jim Dandy beat him on heavy ground, and he did defeat older horses in both the Saratoga Cup and the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Omaha (7-4-2-1 post-Crown) was from the first crop of Gallant Fox, and he undoubtedly had the most ambitious post-Triple Crown career. As a 4-year-old in 1936, Omaha was sent to England, where he nearly stole the show. After two victories in minor events, the American colt was beaten just a nose in the 2 1/2-mile Ascot Gold Cup and a neck in the Princess of Wales's Stakes at Newmarket.

War Admiral (15-13-1-0 after his 1937 Crown) raced on at 4 and briefly at 5 and lost only twice. And yet, instead of his victories in such events as the Whitney, the Widener, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Saratoga Handicap, and the Saratoga Cup in the 16 months following his Belmont, War Admiral is known primarily as Seabiscuit's patsy in their two-horse Pimlico Special of 1938. That's what a Hollywood movie does for you.

They say racing isn't the same as it used to be. Big Brown, meet Whirlaway. After his waltz in the four-horse Belmont of 1941, Whirlaway (33-18-11-3 post-Crown) raced for two solid years without a break. His 18 victories included a walkover in the 1942 Pimlico Special and seven wins carrying 130 pounds. Wherever he ran, he raised money for war bonds.

Count Fleet (0-0-0-0) hurt himself winning the 1943 Belmont by 25 lengths and never raced again. For decades, we have taken Johnny Longden's word that he was the best he ever rode. That, coupled with 16 wins from 21 starts, has been enough to put Count Fleet among the greats, and tends to dilute the same "What if?" factor that would surround Big Brown.

Assault (27-11-4-6) lost more races than he won after taking the 1946 Triple Crown, including 6 of 9 during the second half of his 3-year-old season. But give him a break. No Triple Crown winner was ever faced with tougher post-Crown competition. Among the horses Assault routinely met were Hall of Famers Stymie, Armed, Noor, and Gallorette.

Then came Citation (24-14-8-2 post-Crown), who at one point in his career won 16 races in a row. The Derby, Preakness, and Belmont were numbers three, four, and six in that remarkable string.

After the Belmont, Citation breezed through the rest of 1948, beating older horses five times. He sat out 1949 with a tendon injury, then came back in 1950 and ran smack into the relentless galloper Noor, losing 4 of their 5 encounters. Citation managed to win just 5 of 16 races as an older runner, which killed his percentage but did nothing to tarnish his legend.

Even after his record-smashing Triple Crown of 1973, Secretariat (6-4-2-0) had something to prove. His retirement at the end of the year was written in stone, but his record syndication was a gamble. After defeating older horses in the Marlboro Cup, the Man o' War, and the Canadian International, the gamble looked more like found money, and Secretariat had set a standard for the ages.

With the possible exception of Assault, few Triple Crown winners had more quality opposition post-Belmont than 1977 winner Seattle Slew (8-5-2-0); otherwise his reputation still would have been floundering around in a sea of speculation. His races as a 4-year-old against Exceller and Affirmed took care of that.

On the other hand, there was little doubt about Affirmed (13-8-3-1) after he dealt with Alydar through their 1978 Derby, Preakness, and Belmont showdowns. Affirmed then piled on with a muscular, bicoastal 4-year-old campaign, capped by his victory in the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup against 3-year-olds Spectacular Bid and Coastal. It was the best of any Triple Crown winner - and a sight we won't get to see if there's a Big Brown Crown.