06/09/2002 11:00PM

Que sera sera - it's racing, after all

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ELMONT, N.Y. - The folks at Belmont Park got it all wrong. As musical accompaniment for the final act of the 2002 Triple Crown, "New York, New York" was way off the mark. Better they should have turned the microphone over to Corrinne Malone, a troubadour holding forth on a backyard bench, and let her croon her seductive version of "Que Sera Sera."

Whatever will be, will be.

Malone and her acoustic guitar were there last Saturday, along with about 103,000 other pilgrims, all of them intent on witnessing some kind of history. They got it, but be careful what you wish for. Instead of celebrating War Emblem as the 12th winner of the Triple Crown, they were smacked with the loudest wake-up call in the history of the race.

They also got a dose of grim reality, and how horse racing differs from such polite sports as baseball, football, and basketball. In the day's fourth race, the WNBC purse for fillies and mares, the suspensory ligaments in Imadeed's right front ankle ruptured nearing the eighth pole, ripping the sesamoids through the skin and sending her plunging to the ground. Pleasant County, in the wrong place at the worst time, tumbled over the fallen Imadeed and fractured her skull. Imadeed got up, her foreleg dangling. Pleasant County did not.

The show went on, injury and death giving way to the abject confusion of Sarava's $142.50 surprise. By now, it should be apparent to all but the terminally stubborn that horse racing cannot be figured, parsed, dissected, or analyzed with anything approaching confident measure.

Until Saturday, Sarava spent his life flying safely beneath the radar. At 70-1 in the Belmont, his chances were held in lower esteem than such past Belmont laughables as Mr. Energizer, Is Sveikatas, and Buckle Down Ben. Sarava's victory over Medaglia d'Oro topped the stunning mutuel numbers posted by Sherluck ($132.10) in 1961 and Temperence Hill ($108.80) in 1980.

"If you ever needed proof, there it is again," said Niall O'Callaghan, who tried to win the Belmont with Wiseman's Ferry. "You've got to ignore what's being said and look at your own horse. You can't win if you don't run."

And boy did Sarava run.

"I still can't believe he got by me," said Kent Desormeaux, spitting bits of Belmont sand as he walked away from second-place Medaglia d'Oro. "I mean, we re-broke like Quarter Horses!"

"Give Prado credit for a great ride," said Gary Stevens, who had a good view of Sarava and Edgar Prado from atop third-place Sunday Break. "He was running right inside me, keeping real quiet and dressed to kill. If I had the horse, I could have kept him in there. But I didn't. Edgar split horses at the head of the stretch and just kept going."

From Bob Baffert's perch, the view was sickening. When War Emblem stumbled, the Triple Crown was gone - poof - and there was no place left to hide. All Baffert could hope for was a ration of comfort from his closest friends and family. The Bafferts are known, however, for reminding each other at regular intervals that all glory is fleeting.

"This was like the Rainbow Derby you lost when Zure Hope Again didn't break," said Gambel, Bob's youngest brother. "Remember how you chewed us out in the car all the way back to the airport?"

"Thanks a lot," Bob replied. "I haven't felt this bad since that day."

Okay, so it's a stretch. Zure Hope Again was Baffert's best 3-year-old of 1988 when his horses were all out to get 400 yards. The Rainbow Derby is run at Ruidoso Downs, in the mountains of southern New Mexico, and in 1988 it was worth $396,353, a good pot for Quarter Horses but a long way from the $5.6 million at stake in the Belmont. Besides that, there were definitely not 103,222 fans in attendance.

"I think that's the last time I had a horse standing so wrong he fell completely down," Baffert said.

The Belmont Park starting gate crew, led by Bob Duncan, is considered among the best in the business. Baffert refused to blame War Emblem's stagger on anything but bad luck.

"It wasn't their fault," Baffert said. "He lifted a leg and was moving when they kicked it. Apparently, he did not get the last look. After it happened, I just wish Victor [Espinoza] would have kept him behind horses longer. As long as it looks like you might lose, you might as well give the sonofagun an education."

The rest of us may never learn. The Triple Crown is an artificial grail, and inexplicably difficult. At its best, the Crown gives the game a day in the sun, when racing has a chance impress a sports culture that normally could care less.

As for the worst, that is already on record. When Sarava and War Emblem deplaned in Louisville on Sunday afternoon, the shining stars of the 2002 Triple Crown, so did the 5-year-old mare Imadeed. With her damaged leg in a Kimsey splint, she was on her way to the Rood & Riddle Clinic in Lexington, where she was given a 50-50 chance of pulling through. Right now, those are the only odds that count.