06/03/2004 12:00AM

Crowning Moments: Near misses

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In the 26 years since Affirmed became the 11th Triple Crown winner, nine horses have raced in the Belmont Stakes seeking to join him. As with Affirmed, they won the Kentucky Derby, then the Preakness Stakes. But all nine - Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, and Funny Cide - failed in the Belmont.

When Smarty Jones runs in Saturday's 136th Belmont Stakes, he will attempt to end that streak and become the 12th Triple Crown winner. But if he loses, he will be the 10th since Affirmed, and the 18th since Pensive in 1944, to falter with the Triple Crown on the line.

This is the third straight year, and sixth time in the last eight years, that the Triple Crown hangs in the balance in the Belmont. The race's 1 1/2 miles come at the end of a grueling campaign. First come the Derby preps. The Derby itself marks the first time a horse will run 1 1/4 miles, and in front of the largest crowd he will ever see. He then must come back on two weeks' rest, perhaps the only time in his career he will have as few as 14 days between starts, and win the Preakness. And then three weeks later he must run 1 1/2 miles, likely the only time he will have to race that far.

Three races, at three distances, at three racetracks, in three states, in five weeks. It's an endurance test.

"It's hard, but let it be hard," said Barclay Tagg, who brought Funny Cide into last year's Belmont following victories in the Derby and Preakness. "People say the races are too close together, or the distances should be changed. But I don't see any sense in that. Let the Triple Crown be the Triple Crown."

Several factors proved Funny Cide's undoing last year, Tagg said. He finished third in the Belmont, five lengths behind the victorious Empire Maker.

"He ran hard in the Preakness. He was encouraged to run faster and further than he probably needed," Tagg said. "He had a fast work the week of the race. The media crush kept ganging up on him. The track was muddy. Heavy, heavy mud that day. It was his sixth race in five months. He ran against two horses, Empire Maker and Ten Most Wanted, who were fresh. They hadn't run in five weeks. And despite all that, he got beat by one second."

Two years ago, the speedy War Emblem won the Derby and Preakness, too. But his Belmont chances evaporated two strides out of the gate, when he stumbled badly and nearly lost jockey Victor Espinoza.

"It was over at the start," said Bob Baffert, who trained War Emblem. "I knew it was going to be a long two minutes and 28 seconds. I wanted to go get a sandwich and a Coke, but it was so crowded I couldn't move.

"After the Preakness, I thought there was no way he could lose the Belmont. But in Kentucky, the last week before the Belmont, it started to get really hot. I couldn't do much with him. He was a light horse. He started getting quiet. He wasn't as aggressive. I thought he was doing well, learning to relax. But he was so one-dimensional."

Baffert has missed out on the Triple Crown three times in the Belmont. Both Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998 finished second.

"Real Quiet I thought was a slam dunk," Baffert said.

It was a heartbreaking loss.

"The toughest part is realizing you're carrying the weight of the racing world on your shoulders," said Kent Desormeaux, who rode Real Quiet.

"You feel sorry for the fans. They all come to see you and your horse," Baffert said. "When you get up to your box, the people are waiting for you. Down below, they're cheering you on. It's a great feeling. It's all about you. The Derby is for you. The Triple Crown is for the fans. It hits you when it's done. It's over. You go back to your lives. Your phone doesn't ring. It's a long haul. Those last three weeks are probably the toughest."

There have been almost as many reasons for losing the Triple Crown as there have been Triple Crown bids.

"It takes a special horse to make all three dances. It takes a real special one to win all three," said D. Wayne Lukas, who trained Charismatic. "It takes a toll."

Charismatic suffered a career-ending injury in the 1999 Belmont, in which he finished third after attending the early pace. "That wasn't the kind of race he ran to win the first two," Lukas said.

Spectacular Bid, besides being too close to the pace in the 1979 Belmont, stepped on a safety pin the morning of the race. Pleasant Colony, a confirmed stretch runner, was done in by a soft pace that kept the leaders fresh in 1981. Alysheba, Sunday Silence, and Real Quiet lost to arch-rivals who avenged losses from the Derby and Preakness. Silver Charm had an apparent victory wrested from him by Touch Gold, a rival Silver Charm had seemingly put away a quarter-mile earlier.

"I know what it feels like to win the Triple Crown, because with a sixteenth of a mile to go, I thought I had the race won," said Gary Stevens, who rode Silver Charm. "I went from feeling as high as you could possibly feel to as low as you could possibly feel.

"He got beat by a relatively fresh horse. The Triple Crown takes a toll, takes a toll on all of them. Anybody who says it doesn't is lying. That's why it's so tough to win."

A year after losing on Silver Charm, Stevens played the role of spoiler in the most dramatic Triple Crown finish since Affirmed outdueled Alydar. Real Quiet opened a four-length lead with a furlong remaining, but Stevens and Victory Gallop ran him down in the very last jump.

"That's the most perfect race I ever rode," Stevens said. "Everything went right. I was able to split horses two different times. I could ride that race 200 times, and only once would I not [mess] it up."

The narrow defeats suffered by Silver Charm and Real Quiet are in contrast to the humbling Belmont losses of Sunday Silence and Alysheba, both of whom lost to horses they had defeated in the Derby and Preakness. Sunday Silence in 1989 finished second, eight lengths behind Easy Goer, who thrived at Belmont Park.

"I wanted to win. I wanted to win bad," said Shug McGaughey, who trained Easy Goer.

Alysheba in 1987 encountered traffic trouble on the final turn and finished fourth, 14 1/4 lengths behind the winner, Bet Twice.

"At the time I didn't think he was going to be compromised by the hard races, but in hindsight, I think he was less than his best on the day," said Chris McCarron, who rode Alysheba. "Bet Twice didn't improve 14 lengths because of the mile and a half. Bet Twice ran the best race of his life. Alysheba didn't run his best, nor did I ride the best race of my life. But it wasn't a 14-length bad ride.

"It takes a special horse," McCarron said. "It takes a hardy type of horse who can bounce back and take the tough training."

And it takes some luck. Pleasant Colony had none in the 1981 Belmont, in which he finished third to Summing.

"I thought he was a cinch," said Jorge Velasquez, who rode Pleasant Colony. "I thought he'd win for fun. A mile and a half was his game."

After the first six furlongs were run in 1:14.20, Velasquez knew he was in trouble. "They slowed down the pace so much, it was ridiculous," Velasquez said. "George Martens did a great job with Summing. I couldn't close on him. My horse was a plodder. He needed a fast pace to come running, like in the Derby and Preakness."

No Triple Crown loss seems as cruel in hindsight as that of Spectacular Bid, who was one of the great racehorses of the 20th century. He was a champion at 2, 3, and 4. His odds (30 cents on the dollar) are the shortest price on any Belmont runner since Secretariat in 1973, a testament to his powerful victories in the Derby and Preakness. On the morning of the Belmont, according to trainer Bud Delp, Spectacular Bid stepped on a safety pin.

"It was a shock to see it embedded a half-inch into the laminae of his foot," Delp said. "I took the pin out, and this dark-colored liquid came out. When he put the foot down, he was sound. Around 3 or 4 that afternoon, I took him out and jogged him. The foot was cold, so I thought, 'I'm gonna run.' "

Delp apprised only the colt's owner, Harry Meyerhoff, and jockey, Ron Franklin, of the development. "I thought he could get by," Delp said.

Spectacular Bid chased the 85-1 shot Gallant Best for the first half-mile, had the lead entering the stretch, but faded to finish third behind the victorious Coastal.

"Ronnie rode a terrible race, going after that longshot," Delp said. "It cost him the Triple Crown."

Delp said nothing immediately after the race regarding the safety pin. "I didn't want to make excuses," he said.

When the story got out days later, there was widespread skepticism as to whether the safety pin story was true.

Eight days after the race, Spectacular Bid was lame. He was examined by two veterinarians, Dr. James Stewart and Dr. Alex Harthill. They cut away at the laminae until they found a black spot on the sole of the foot.

"You have to drill down until you get the pus pocket, or you'll have an infected foot," Delp said. "When they hit it, it was like water shooting out of a fountain, but it was black, thick pus."

Delp said Spectacular Bid, while in his stall, liked to pick at the safety pins that held his bandages. To keep Spectacular Bid from getting at the pins, groom Herman Hall would sprinkle paprika on the bandages.

"But he forgot to put the red pepper on the night before the Belmont," Delp said. "If he had, I'd have been the last Triple Crown winner."