06/02/2006 12:00AM

Helping the sport another way


PHOENIX - There are those who have said the sport needs a Triple Crown winner to save it. And after Barbaro's Kentucky Derby tour de force, he looked as if he could be the one.

A few steps into the Preakness that dream was shattered, but could Barbaro's impact on the game be more far-reaching and more important than had he won the Preakness and Belmont?

He has certainly called attention to the sport. Despite the basketball playoffs, Barry Bonds chasing history, a woman trying to win the Indy 500, and a girl trying to qualify to the men's U.S. Open golf tournament, it has been this injured horse that has dominated the sports headlines nationally. Sadly and predictably, much of that has come from those who deem the sport cruel, and from those who somehow blame this tragic misstep - and that's all it was - on the Triple Crown and the spacing of its races. But there has been an unexpected benefit to the news of the injury. It has done something rarely seen in this sport - galvanize it. The injury to the game's most high-profile star has brought about pressure, both internal and external, to do more to protect the horses.

The game had been doing more to protect them before the Preakness. Turfway Park began running on a synthetic surface - thought to be safer for horses - last fall; Woodbine is installing a synthetic surface this summer; and California's tracks will follow suit in the next couple of years.

I hated hearing people say after the injury, 'Well, that's racing.' No, that's not racing, even if injuries are part of the game. The industry can learn how to deal with injury from Nascar. After Dale Earnhardt died in a crash about five years ago, Nascar strengthened some safety measures and there hasn't been a Nascar fatality since.

Sadly, there will be other accidents, but advances in track surfaces might make such instances less frequent, and advances in medical treatment and techniques (such as the special shoes and cast being used on Barbaro) may mean the injuries end up less catastrophic. And in some way wouldn't that be a greater legacy for Barbaro than even a Triple Crown?

Light at end of Belmont tunnel

The Derby and Preakness winners won't be there. Last year's 2-year-old champion isn't running. The horse who won the Blue Grass Stakes by double digits and posted easily the best two-turn Beyer by any horse this year won't be running. The Derby morning-line favorite isn't going and neither is the post-time favorite. Even so, this year's Belmont remains a highly intriguing race.

It's six days early, to be sure, but one horse of interest to me is Sacred Light. Trainer Dave Hofmans entered the Belmont a decade ago with a horse named Touch Gold, and promptly spoiled the Triple Crown celebration of Silver Charm. Now, Sacred Light is not Touch Gold, but he looks like the type to enjoy 12 furlongs.

He's got a steady, grinding style, the type that does well at this trip. Despite what people think, big closers often don't do well in the Belmont. It's usually tactical speed and the ability to sustain it that prevails, which is why so many believed Barbaro would have an easier time of it in the Belmont than in any of the other Triple Crown races.

Sacred Light was intended for the Derby but did not get in due to insufficient earnings. That may have been a blessing in disguise. He ran second in an allowance at Churchill, which gave him the chance to take another step in the right direction, a chance to develop while the big boys knocked heads. It may translate to a big run at Big Sandy at a big price next Saturday.