06/10/2002 12:00AM

Sarava's upset well-earned

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ELMONT, N.Y. - The winners? Sarava and racing.

Sarava's victory in the 134th Belmont Stakes was a 70-1 surprise because of his limited exposure this spring. His people had been fighting a nasty quarter crack and had to select their racing opportunities with care.

But Sarava made the most of his few races, particularly the 1 1/16-mile Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico, which he won by four lengths on Preakness Day.

Sarava's Belmont victory was unexpected, but a fluke? No. Sarava had to fight for his victory and he had a grim opponent for the crucial stretch run in Medaglia d'Oro. That colt, whose bobble at the start of the Kentucky Derby could well have cost him a placing, did not do as well in the Preakness under early restraint. He was permitted to run his own race in the Belmont and produced a first-class effort, missing by only a half-length after refusing to yield an inch during a thrilling final furlong.

Racing put on a great show Belmont Day, successfully selling the glamor prospects of a Triple Crown with a generous assist from Bob Baffert, who was always available to the largest media turnout since Secretariat's memorable classic campaign of 1973. Public interest in racing appeared to be at an all-time high, dramatized by the record crowd of 103,222 on hand in delightful weather for an entertaining program of outstanding sport.

They came to see history made and they desperately, after a 24-year interval, wanted a sweep of the classics by War Emblem. His stumble at the start effectively cost him all chance. He recovered quickly and was very game to regain a contending position, but the effort was costly.

"It wasn't meant to happen," Baffert reflected Monday morning. "I can't remember the last time we had a horse stumble leaving the gate. We were pretty lucky at that because he appears to be all right. It is so easy for a horse to grab a quarter or pull a suspensory during a stumble. He is an outstanding athlete, however, and recovered his balance in an instant. However, it cost him all chance."

War Emblem will fly to California next week for a freshening and Baffert says he has no immediate plans for the colt. Sarava is expected to freshen in Kentucky and will have the Travers at Saratoga as his major goal of the summer, with another major feature, such as the Haskell or the Jim Dandy, as a prelude.

Whatever history has in store for Sarava, it will be difficult to top for impact his triumph at Belmont Saturday. This must rank with the great upsets in racing: Native Dancer's defeat by Dark Star in the 1953 Kentucky Derby, Gallant Fox's defeat by Jim Dandy in the 1930 Travers, and Man o' War's defeat by Upset in the Sanford at Saratoga in 1919.

Sarava, a $250,000 purchase at Calder, raced in England last season at 2 and did not distinguish himself. Returned to the U.S. in early fall, he made two starts at Kentucky tracks under the care of trainer Burk Kessinger and showed some ability. A quarter crack forced him to the sidelines, however, and Ken McPeek took over his training for the co-owners, Gary Drake of Louisville and Paul Roy of New York, a prominent financier with Merrill Lynch.

Sarava made two starts in Kentucky this spring, and was a promising second both times in good company. He came to hand quickly for McPeek, who also trained the Kentucky Derby favorite, Harlan's Holiday. When Sarava won Pimlico's Sir Barton Stakes three weeks ago, McPeek began to think of him as a prospect for the Belmont. Quite a story.