05/24/2007 12:00AM

Let's see a rematch - if they're ready


NEW YORK - If you tell a horseplayer who has just suffered an excruciating and expensive beat at the wire that you kind of like a 7-5 shot later on the card, he is likely to respond exactly the way Carl Nafzger did last Saturday evening when asked about running in the Belmont Stakes after losing the Preakness: "What's the point?"

While Curlin was a thoroughly deserving and impressive winner of the Preakness, Street Sense's defeat at the wire was a truly bad beat. There was nothing unfair about it, and it was horse racing at its best. But when Street Sense knifed through a seam to take command in upper stretch and began to open up, he looked like a cinch to win by daylight and go on to the Belmont with a chance for the first Triple Crown in 29 years. It had a little bit of the same feeling as Real Quiet's and Smarty Jones's Belmonts, with the added improbability of his being caught by a horse he had left for dead a furlong earlier.

So it was no surprise that Nafzger was initially unenthusiastic about coming back in the Belmont. With nine days to recover before a scheduled announcement Monday on the colt's status, though, it will be a disappointment if he does not reconsider and send Street Sense on to New York.

When exactly did the Belmont Stakes become radioactive? We keep hearing that the stallion syndicators no longer value victory in the 1 1/2-mile classic, though there's been no shortage of customers for A.P. Indy, Thunder Gulch, Point Given, or Empire Maker. We all know that Belmont starters will never be asked to race 12 furlongs on the dirt again, nor will many of their offspring. The point of the race, however, is not to establish one's credentials at a particular unpopular distance but to continue sorting out the relative merits of the crop's best runners under fire. A Belmont victory by either Curlin or Street Sense would stamp either as the definitive leader of the nation's 3-year-olds, and winning two Triple Crown races has meant a nearly automatic divisional championship in recent years.

If Curlin wins the Belmont in Street Sense's absence, the Derby winner would have to beat him in either the Travers or the Breeders' Cup Classic to regain his standing, and there's no guarantee they'll both make it that far or handle their elders this fall. If both horses are fit and ready, now is the time for an old-style rubber match.

Still, you can't force these things. In the wake of Nafzger's initial reluctance to run in the Belmont, various commentators who don't follow the sport regularly fulminated about a perceived lack of sportsmanship and on racing's inability to decree marquee showdowns. Bill Dwyre, the former sports editor of the Los Angeles Times and now a columnist for that newspaper, wrote that what the sport really needed last Saturday was a powerful commissioner who would have demanded secret prerace promises from the trainers of the three Preakness favorites that they would go on to the Belmont. The promises would have been announced right after the race, released like a flock of doves to thrill the multitudes.

"The media would have been blown away by the gesture alone," he wrote. "Headlines would have reflected a stunning new togetherness in racing, an actual plan. And make no mistake: There would have been headlines. . . . Or maybe horse racing just wants to continue to feel sorry for itself about not getting enough respect, about being called a dying sport."

This idea would have made racing seem more like other sports only in its utter fakery and hollowness. No racing official can be empowered to demand a horse run in a particular race, and no one can ever promise to run a horse two steps ahead. The only thing the trainers could have told a racing czar was the truth: Of course the Belmont is under consideration, but we'll have to see how he runs and how he comes out of it and whether that's the best next move. Anything more would be smoke.

Nafzger has always done the right thing by his horses and has earned the benefit of the doubt. If he and his colt have gotten over their truly stunning defeat, here's hoping they run in the Belmont.