06/08/2003 11:00PM

Only the deserving win crown

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NEW YORK - Now that we are assured of the longest gap without a Triple Crown winner - as a result of the defeat of Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Funny Cide in the Belmont Stakes - let's keep the despair in check.

For the fifth time in the last seven years, and for the ninth time since Affirmed last swept the Triple Crown in 1978, a horse's Triple Crown dreams died in the Belmont. Although this may be agonizing for those who have never seen a Triple Crown winner, the fact is, these sorts of frustrations are not unprecedented. In a 14-year period during what was previously the longest drought - the 25 years between Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973 - seven horses failed to complete the sweep in the Belmont, including four horses in the six years from 1966 through 1971.

Two years after that, Secretariat began a run that saw three Triple Crown winners within six years, a run that is also not without parallel. In the eight years from 1941 through 1948, four horses swept the Triple Crown.

All of this is meant to say that so many recent near-misses suggest that there will be another Triple Crown winner, probably sooner rather than later. This is expecially likely, when you consider the course this game seems to be taking. The field of only six in Saturday's Belmont Stakes seemed to be the culmination of several influences, including the scarcity of genuinely top-class horses and the general disinclination of horsemen to damage their win percentages by placing their horses in races they have little chance of winning. These trends show no signs of flagging. Even with the annual ballyhoo over field size in the Kentucky Derby, there has not been a maximum starting field of 20 in the Derby since 1984.

When there is another Triple Crown winner, he will be worthy of the honor. That is because the requirements - three races in five weeks over three racetracks in three states at three distances - have an uncanny knack of exposing those who are not worthy. Funny Cide is a thoroughly likeable, talented, expertly trained performer, and we all pray he stays healthy so that we can enjoy him for years to come. But, he was not Triple Crown worthy. And, the signs were there well before he had to deal with his third race in five weeks and 12 furlongs and a sloppy track Saturday.

This Triple Crown was somewhat reminiscent of 1997, when it was nearly swept by Silver Charm. As good a horse as Silver Charm was, he was lucky to be going for the Triple Crown heading into the Belmont. Touch Gold, who did not start in that year's Derby, had one of the worst trips in recent Triple Crown history in the Preakness. It was a miracle he finished fourth, and everyone except the most emotionally blinded knew Touch Gold would have won that Preakness with any kind of fair trip. He gained his revenge in the Belmont, and he did so on only three healthy feet. In the last two races of the 1997 Triple Crown, Touch Gold was simply a better horse than Silver Charm.

Similarly, a strong argument can be made that Funny Cide was not the best horse in this series. As I have said before, Empire Maker might have been best finishing second in the Derby - his training was compromised and he had a tougher trip - and he was clearly the best horse in the Belmont.

The Belmont also confirmed that the widespread support Ten Most Wanted received in the Kentucky Derby was not misplaced, and that in the case of Dynever there was no substitute for keeping good company and running fast.

Just as Empire Maker gained redemption for winning, Ten Most Wanted did the same in finishing a strong second, erasing the bad taste of his dismal ninth in the Derby. Many people who jumped on Ten Most Wanted's bandwagon before the Derby on the basis of his strong win in the Illinois Derby were calling his Illinois Derby a fluke afterward. But, Ten Most Wanted proved that a wiser approach is being able to forgive a good horse one bad performance, especially when the price is right.

As for fig-challenged Dynever, he proved that flashy records compiled against third- and fourth-rate opposition hold as much water as a sieve. In the Triple Crown, it is necessary to be battle tested against the best.

At least there was one Triple Crown completed Saturday - a Triple Crown of bizarre odds. Ten Cents a Shine got the ball rolling in the Kentucky Derby where, instead of being 150-1 off a series of horrendous races, he was only 37-1. He ran more like a 150-1 shot, however, finishing eighth. Then Cherokee's Boy, who had never even gotten close to a triple digit Beyer Speed Figure, was only 9-1 in the Preakness. He managed to beat two horses. But, Supervisor may have taken the cake in the Belmont. Supervisor's morning line of 50-1 was actually generous considering he lost 13 of 15 starts, and his best Beyer was 89, 25 points below Funny Cide's best. Yet, Supervisor closed at less than 15-1. Who are these people that bet these horses down? Can we get them to come to the track every day? Please?