05/27/2004 11:00PM

The party's just gettin' started


NEW YORK - If Smarty Jones wins the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown on Saturday, is the story over, or is it reasonable and realistic to hope for him to do even more?

Recently minted racing fans may assume it is standard operating procedure for a horse to disappear into husbandry or obscurity after bidding for the sport's gaudiest achievement. The last three horses in Smarty's position - Charismatic, War Emblem, and Funny Cide - have to date subsequently combined to win a total of one Grade 1 stakes race.

The history of our 11 Triple Crown winners, however, paints a far more hopeful picture. Those 11 immortals made a combined 159 career starts before winning the Belmont Stakes and a combined 161 starts after winning the Triple Crown. Eight of the 11 raced beyond their 3-year-old season, and most of them significantly enhanced their reputations and showed even greater gifts than they did while winning the Triple Crown.

Sir Barton's Belmont in 1919 was his 10th career start, but he raced another 21 times at 3 and 4, winning nine more stakes. Gallant Fox was 5 for 10 coming into the 1930 Belmont and won 5 of 6 starts after it, but did not race at 4. Omaha raced seven more times at 3 and 4 after winning the 1935 Triple Crown, including four starts on the grass in England to close out his career.

War Admiral raced 15 more times at 3, 4, and 5 after winning the 1937 Triple Crown, and although he lost the 1938 Pimlico Special to Seabiscuit, he won 13 of his 14 other post-Crown starts. Count Fleet in 1943 was the only Triple Crown winner who never raced again after the Belmont, because of a tendon injury, but the next two were cast from iron: Assault raced another 27 times after winning the 1946 Triple Crown, winning nine more stakes and racing until he was 7, and Whirlaway made another 25 starts, winning 11 more stakes races at 4, 5, and 6.

Secretariat, like Gallant Fox and Count Fleet, did not race past his 3-year-old season, but what more could you ask him to do? After setting track records in all three Triple Crown races, he beat older horses in world-record time in the Marlboro that fall, then won two grass stakes as if he might have been as great a turf horse as a dirt horse.

Seattle Slew, whose career Smarty Jones's most resembles, ran his undefeated record to 9 for 9 in the Belmont, then was badly beaten in an ill-advised trip to California. That was the beginning of a long, sad second act to his career that included illness, injury, a trainer change, and widespread doubt over how good he had ever been. But Slew had a glorious third act in the fall of his 4-year-old year, whipping Affirmed in the Marlboro and then Exceller in the Woodward before an epic effort in defeat in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

Affirmed raced 13 more times after becoming our most recent Triple Crown winner in 1978, and he, too, had a rough patch, losing four straight, but then cemented his position as a truly great horse by winning the last seven starts of his career, including the 1979 Jockey Club Gold Cup against Spectacular Bid.

In an era when 3-year-olds such as Point Given, Fusaichi Pegasus, and Empire Maker have been prematurely and greedily hustled off to stud before being given a sporting chance at greatness, the second and third acts of most of our Triple Crown winners may seem like a charming anachronism. They don't have to be, and the very good news is that early indications from the Smarty Jones camp are that his days on the track are not yet numbered. The two bonuses that would bring his career earnings to a record $13 million if he wins Saturday will temper the lure of quick breeding-shed dollars, and his owners have already turned down blank checks for Smarty Jones, preferring to race and enjoy him themselves.

Much of the talk this week will be whether Smarty Jones is a great horse, or will be one if he wins the Belmont. Of course he will have done a magnificent thing, something that none of the nearly one million foals born since Affirmed has been able to do. It may seem greedy to wish for anything more than an end to the 26-year Triple Crown drought, but as history shows, great horses can do even more.