06/02/2004 11:00PM

Eleven immortals; soon possibly 12


FAIR HILL, Md. - There are 11 of them, forever linked by one denomination. In racing, there are millionaires, Hall of Famers, Eclipse Award winners, Breeders' Cup winners, Classic winners, and (pause) the immortal 11 who have won the Triple Crown.

Saturday, Smarty Jones tries to make it an even dozen.

It's batting .400 in baseball or never telling a lie - many have tried and few have succeeded.

Nearly four miles of competition squeezed into a five-week span - the Triple Crown comprises one of sport's toughest assignments. Every year, there is a World Series winner, a Wimbledon winner, a Masters winner, a Tour de France winner. But in horse racing, a Triple Crown winner comes along about as often as Halley's Comet.

It's climbing Everest - three times.

And that's why it's sacred.

It doesn't happen easily or often and when it does the sport stops, takes note, and moves forward as a changed game. Triple Crown winners create indents in the history of the sport - they define eras and change lives.

Sir Barton did it first in 1919, but no one classified the feat until years later when it was anointed with the classic term - the Triple Crown. His was the Triple Crown - postdated. Sir Barton was weighted so low for the Derby - his maiden breaker - that jockey John Loftus carried 2 1/2 pounds of overweight. Four days later, he won the Preakness, then won the Withers and beat two rivals in the Belmont.

Eleven years later, Belair Stud's Gallant Fox cajoled jockey Earl Sande out of a two-year retirement and into the winner's circle of the Preakness, Kentucky Derby, and Belmont (in that order). It was the first year for the starting gate and the beginning of something grand.

Five years later, Gallant Fox's son Omaha won the Derby and the Preakness, lost the Withers, and won the Belmont. Belair Farm and Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons had their second Triple Crown winner and the sport had its first father-son Triple Crown champs. Omaha finished his career in England but not until he contributed to Belair Stud's decade of dominance.

Man o' War's son War Admiral made it four Triple Crowns champs with a sweep in 1937, and left a trail of blood after tearing his hoof at the start of the Belmont. A feisty colt, barely taller than his jockey, Charlie Kurtsinger, War Admiral delayed the start of the Belmont by nine minutes after breaking through the gate. Despite his antics, War Admiral went 8 for 8 during his 3-year-old year and if it wasn't for Seabiscuit would probably have been the subject of a blockbuster movie in 2003.

In 1941, Ben Jones pulled out a pocketknife and cut away the inside cup of Whirlaway's blinkers - in the paddock before the Derby. Known for bearing out, Whirlaway ran straight and true to win Calumet's first Triple Crown. The Derby was Whirlaway's 24th start of his career, a $2,500 allowance race between the Preakness and Belmont was his 26th. He pulled up sore in his 60th start and was retired to stud.

Two years after Whirlaway, Count Fleet's career was made and lost in the Triple Crown. He won the Belmont by 25 lengths, hurt a leg, and never ran again. Ridden in all 21 starts by Johnny Longden, Count Fleet was voted Horse of the Year after less than two month's racing as a 3-year-old. In a 370-day career, the son of Reigh Count won 16 races from 21 starts.

Described as "better than an empty stall" as a 2-year-old, Assault had already lost eight races when he captured the 1946 Triple Crown. Injured as a foal, Assault was lame at any gait but fast. Spectators winced when he jogged but marveled when he ran. A King Ranch homebred (in Texas), Assault earned $268,420 by winning the Triple Crown.

Calumet was back when Citation won the Triple Crown in 1948; the three races sandwiched somewhere in a 3-year-old year of 20 starts, 19 victories, three jockeys, nine racetracks, and seven states. Citation set a record for 16 straight victories and became the sport's first millionaire.

Modern times finally had a Triple Crown winner when Secretariat came along to give a much-needed boost to a nation and a game. Until the big red horse wiped out 25 years of frustration, the Triple Crown was beginning to look like something from a bygone era. The number 31 will never be the same, and every racehorse from here on faces Secretariat's daunting yardstick.

Four years later, Seattle Slew somehow harnessed his speed and fire to win the Triple Crown and become the only undefeated horse to do so. Trainer Billy Turner kept the lid on the pot long enough for the sport to have its 10th Triple Crown winner. Seattle Slew's prowess in the breeding shed would affect the game even further.

Affirmed continued the run of Triple Crown winners in the 1970's, beating Alydar in three epic matches. The margin between the two horses dwindled with each start, but the Harbor View homebred never let his Calumet rival pass him. The sport had three Triple Crown winners in six runnings - it was back.

Little did we know then that it would never happen again.

Or will it?

Smarty Jones, it's up to you, son.