05/18/2008 11:00PM

Focus returns to the Crown


With the victory of Big Brown in the Preakness, racing and its media remoras now move briskly from reform to ritual. The memory of the death of Eight Belles will grow dim, experienced only as an occasional gulp of acid reflux in the otherwise festive coverage during the next three weeks. You think the Jenna Bush wedding was a big deal? Wait until the Dutrow-Desormeaux show hits Broadway.

The basic steps of the dance have been perfected. Six times since 1997 alone has a horse won the Derby and the Preakness and descended upon Belmont Park with destiny on his tail. Six times they failed. Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and Smarty Jones were beaten on the line. Funny Cide pulled hard and was rained out. War Emblem didn't break. Charismatic broke down.

In each case, the story lines became familiar variations on a few simple themes. Over the coming weeks, the following relics will be exhumed and tortured at length, filling space and time that could otherwise be spent on Arena Football fantasy leagues. Enjoy.

A Triple Crown Winner Will Save Racing - This assumes racing either needs or wants to be saved, and saved from what, or for what. But never mind. Because his stud career looms large and soon, a Big Brown Triple Crown (damn, it even rhymes) will be the ultimate bait and switch. New customers drawn in by this most daunting of racing achievements will be told, politely, that Mr. Brown no longer works here, but that there are other fine products available - a pick six here, a superfecta there. Say, have you ever heard of the Breeders' Cup? Would you like to see something in a loafer?

In a way, though, Big Brown may be the perfect horse for a sports culture suffering from deficit disorders in both loyalty and attention. Six races and out. Six weeks in the blinding spotlight. Sounds about right for the rapid-fire, 24-hour appetite for sports news and disposable heroes. And what's not to love about a star who comes out of nowhere, hits all the right notes, then rips a walk-off grand slam and leaves the field forever? Who wants to stick around and figure out such messy realities as the Saratoga graveyard and running against top older horses? Big Brown could be nothing less than racing's James Dean - three movies, then immortality, with nothing else to answer for.

I Never Thought I'd Miss Alydar - Of course, James Dean never had to act against Brando. And because Big Brown has no viable competition, except from a Japanese horse (you in the back, stop laughing), it is incumbent upon the communicators of the sport to explain just how difficult nailing the modern Triple Crown can be no matter what the opposition. And not just because only 11 colts have done it.

Unless Gayego's people divorce themselves completely from reality, Big Brown will be the only member of his generation to run in the Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont. Lately, this is not unusual. No horse ran in all three in 2006. Smarty Jones, by necessity, was the only one who kept coming back for more in 2004. And in 2003, other than Funny Cide, the only other horse to try them all was Scrimshaw, basically background noise, who was beaten a combined 50 lengths.

By the time Affirmed and Alydar got to the Belmont, everyone knew they were very good colts, and that Affirmed, should he make the slightest flinch, was in trouble. This spring, there has been nothing to emerge in the spirit of Alydar - or his kindred spirits Empire Maker, Victory Gallop, Easy Goer, and Sham - to challenge Big Brown with persistent attacks.

With no such variable in the Big Brown mix, his main opposition comes from the concept of fresh legs. Never mind if they are fast enough. The only other lingering questions involve his condition (an esoteric mystery to laymen) and any land mines lingering in his pedigree when it comes to the Belmont's 1 1/2 miles.

The Unbearable Lightness of Being Affirmed - If you were 27 when Affirmed won the Triple Crown, you are now 57. My sympathies. Join the club. Sixty is not the new 30, unless human growth hormones and denial are a staple in your diet, and the years take their toll. The markets, both stock and real estate, have roller-coastered at least a half-dozen times in the last three decades. Baseball lost its glow and was eaten by the beast called the NFL. And while disco died - not a bad thing - so did such irreplaceables as Steve McQueen and Audrey Hepburn.

That is why the prospect of a Triple Crown winner is a wonderful thing, because it pushes all roads toward Affirmed, the last colt to turn the trick. There can be no exaggeration of Affirmed's importance to racing fans of a particular generation - the generation that just happens to be in charge. Affirmed makes this bunch feel young again, and in all the right ways. He offers a whole-grain form of nostalgia that no one can rightly criticize. Affirmed is good for the soul, and Big Brown has put him back on the table.