06/29/2004 12:00AM

Game's stars come out too seldom

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TUCSON, Ariz., - Racing's desperate mission this summer is keeping Smarty Jones alive.

Not keeping him alive and breathing. He's doing fine.

He sneezed, but he's okay.

He's eating well.

He jogged with his pony.

He has a place to enjoy paternity, at lovely Three Chimneys.

He looks wonderful.

But keeping him alive in the public mind while he is not in sight, not running, not doing what makes him a legend and what racehorses are bred to do - that, is tough. It is the problem that Thoroughbred racing faces with every conquering hero. They are the crowning glory of the sport, but their running schedules are a constant challenge.

It is almost four weeks since Smarty lost the Belmont. The Haskell is still more than a month away. The Travers is a good seven weeks ahead. The Philadelphia Derby is two months off. The Breeders' Cup is four months distant.

Smarty Jones is in Pennsylvania, Birdstone in New York. As far as the racing public is concerned, except for the daily trivia dished out, one horse might as well be in Turkestan and the other in Timbuktu.

You can only write about nothing so long, and then you have to write about something.

It is appropriate that Smarty Jones's owners, Roy and Patricia Chapman, were honored in Kentucky, that sales of Smarty togs are going briskly, that Robert Clay is the lucky breeder who gets to stand Smarty when his racing career ends. Those appetizers are snacks, but they are not the meat and potatoes that nourish the sport. The passage of time without action is a killer.

Like millions of others, I was sad to see the crushing blow that fell on the Chapmans and the sport at the Belmont Stakes.

I was sad that the gracious Pat Chapman had to stand before a camera in her moment of depression and gracefully tell the world how she felt about losing the Triple Crown.

I was sad that Smarty did not win.

But I was sadder still that Marylou Whitney and Nick Zito, two of the grand people of Thoroughbred racing, were denied their full moment in the sun - by television cameras and the directors behind them and the writers above them and everyone else - after Birdstone won the Belmont.

That fact remains - Birdstone won the Belmont - and it was almost overlooked that day and every day since by wishful thinking.

It is fortunate for racing that Whitney and Zito are the classy people they are and that they swallowed hard and had the good sense to realize on the spur of a very thrilling moment in their lives that they had to offer comfort and consolation to a grieving racing public, rather than exult in a tremendous victory.

Bobby Frankel is a great trainer, but not a graceful one, and he did not need to sully a moment of glory and accomplishment with his comments disparaging Birdstone following the Belmont. But that's Bobby.

None of that changes the fact that the two horses are secure in their stalls and not on the racetrack, except for exercise. Continuity, or the lack of it, is the curse of Thoroughbred racing, particularly in a game in which one bad step can darken the skies and remove the stars from the scene in the blink of an eye.

The sport is built on tradition and firm beliefs, and those die hard.

Whether the interminable wait between starts for classic horses is an equine necessity or a human belief is immaterial because trainers have been raised to believe that good Thoroughbreds need a month or two or three to rest between starts. Perhaps the fragility of the Thoroughbred today does dictate that they need all that time, but it is difficult to reconcile with their harness racing cousins, who battle weekly and have lowered their mile record time by 10 seconds in one man's lifetime.

It would be interesting to hear what John Gaines might say about this. He is the foremost man alive who has lived with great success through both sports, and he used a harness idea, the Grand Circuit, to create the Breeders' Cup. I'll ask him, and in a future column, let you know what he thinks.