06/05/2002 11:00PM

So, will we witness a Triple Crown?


ELMONT, N.Y. - Easy Goer was the odds-on favorite for the Kentucky Derby of 1989 but was upset by Sunday Silence. They didn't believe it, so Easy Goer was again an odds-on favorite in the Preakness, and again the decision went to Sunday Silence. By now they were convinced, and in the Belmont it was Sunday Silence who was the odds-on favorite. Easy Goer won by eight lengths because the Belmont, at 1 1/2 miles, is a completely different race than the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

This year, War Emblem, at 20-1, surprised most of us in winning the Kentucky Derby. The reaction was quicker and War Emblem was favored in the Preakness. He produced another fine effort to win convincingly and will be heavily favored to sweep the Triple Crown classics when he goes to the gate in the Belmont Stakes Saturday.

There is a lot to admire in War Emblem, a gritty battler who loves a challenge. When they came to him in the Preakness, he responded promptly with the right answer. He has trained well and should be a formidable presence in the Belmont. His quality is apparent, but can he stay the trip?

The initial reaction is to certify his credentials. We haven't had a Triple Crown winner in 24 years, and there won't be a person in the anticipated crowd of 80,000 at Belmont Saturday, regardless of wagering selection, who doesn't want to see him make history. In that sense, the Belmont is a coronation and they are coming to see the crowning of a king.

Trainer Bob Baffert feels strongly that War Emblem has the answer.

"He is the toughest-minded colt I've ever had," Baffert said, choosing his words carefully. "They will test him in the Belmont but I don't think they can beat him."

The addition to the Belmont field of Wiseman's Ferry, the front-running winner of the recent Lone Star Derby, may have changed the strategic appearance of the race. Wiseman's Ferry has a good turn of natural speed and may be able to give War Emblem all he wants if the favorite repeats the tactics that served him so well in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

A duel of that kind could work to the advantage of a consistent finisher like Magic Weisner, the surprising runner-up in the Preakness. The strong-closing Proud Citizen, who was third in the Preakness, and Perfect Drift, third in the Derby, also could benefit from a display of speed by the early leaders. Sunday Break, the Peter Pan winner, also merits consideration.

The Belmont is one of the most interesting classics in some time. But it is beginning to look like the quest for a Triple Crown winner may have to wait for another season.