06/10/2004 12:00AM

Imagine there was no Birdstone


NEW YORK - The "butterfly effect," a key component of chaos theory, is a term used to explain how seemingly tiny things cause enormous ones to happen. First described in 1972 by the meteorologist Edward Lorenz, it says that the flapping of a butterfly's wings in Brazil can set off a chain of events culminating in a devastating tornado in Texas.

Last Saturday, racing history was altered by a butterfly named Birdstone.

Imagine for a moment that Birdstone had been entered in the Riva Ridge Stakes instead of the main event on the Belmont Stakes card, or had stubbed his toe the morning of the race, or that a butterfly somewhere had flapped hard enough to send the widely predicted thunderstorms another mile east, which would have resulted in Birdstone's being scratched because of a wet track.

Imagine the Belmont without Birdstone in the gate. The race unfolds the same way. Smarty Jones puts away Purge, turns back Eddington, and dispatches Rock Hard Ten, just as he did last Saturday. But when he opens up on the field turning for home, there is no Birdstone to come catch him. Instead, Smarty Jones draws off to win the Triple Crown by eight lengths over Royal Assault, and is proclaimed one of racing's immortals. Nobody cares about the fast interior fractions or the slow final quarter, no one says that the colt couldn't handle the distance, and nobody accuses Stewart Elliott of turning in less than a magnificent ride.

Smarty Jones is the same horse running the same race either way, but without the butterfly he is perceived as Secretariat, while with the butterfly, he is considered another Funny Cide. Doesn't that suggest that the truth was somewhere in between all along and that racing is often an optical illusion and more than a little chaotic?

Smarty Jones is obviously a very good horse, but the idea that he was the finest steed the sport had seen since the 1970's was the invention of an uninformed, ratings-driven news and hype machine. What was it about him, other than a chestnut coat, that ever reminded anyone of Secretariat?

It is now equally hard to swallow the idea that his near-miss was the most poignant or unjust in Triple Crown history. Real Quiet came closer. Tim Tam and Charismatic were unluckier, losing to injury. Native Dancer and Risen Star had much worse trips losing their Derbies than Smarty Jones did in his Belmont. Spectacular Bid was a better and far more accomplished horse at this point in his career, having already won eight Grade 1 stakes.

Nor is Smarty Jones an undeserving or ordinary horse. His weak final-time speed figure in the Belmont does not detract from a truly gallant effort, beating back multiple challengers under constant pressure and still almost getting the job done. Eddington is no Affirmed and Birdstone is no Exceller, but the race was a bit reminiscent of the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup, where Seattle Slew showed more character in a troubled defeat than he had in many of his easy triumphs. Smarty Jones may have disappointed the people who had been wrongfully promised he could not lose, but won new respect from anyone who watches more than three races a year.

Welcome to horse racing, where the unexpected sometimes happens and the best horse doesn't always win, something like life itself. The one-horse NBC telecast, complete with adorable schoolchildren praying for an "American hero" who had done nothing particularly heroic and whom they had never heard of six weeks earlier, reflected a desperate and manufactured undercurrent to the event.

While some yahoos at Belmont were booing and throwing their beer cans, the Birdstone and Smarty Jones teams rose to the occasion, displaying genuine compassion and humility in victory and defeat. It's a shame that a mood had to exist where people felt obliged to apologize for winning fair and square, but the fact that this was their impulse does more and speaks better for racing than a Triple Crown would have. Who would have thought that horse racing would return some sportsmanship to the world of sports?

The whining children of all ages who now want to change the rules and make the Triple Crown easier to win are completely missing the point. The Triple Crown is the greatest challenge in sports, and whether or not a horse wins it is a fragile proposition that says nothing about virtue, faith, or flag. All it takes is the flapping of a butterfly's wings, the presence of a Birdstone, in whose absence we would have had a Triple Crown that would have said nothing more or less about Smarty Jones than his defeat did.