05/19/2002 11:00PM

Special horse vs. elusive goal

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BALTIMORE - A Triple Crown in prospect? It is the most elusive goal in all of sports. A horse must be incredibly versatile and determined and lucky to win the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes in a period of five weeks.

There is some similarity between the Derby and the Preakness, but the Belmont Stakes, at a mile and a half, is a different game. Since Affirmed last accomplished a sweep of the three races in 1978, we've seen such good ones as Spectacular Bid, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, and Real Quiet win the first two legs and come acropper in the Belmont.

Having acknowledged the enormity of the task and the many pitfalls that lie in wait for the unwary, we give War Emblem a big chance to add the Belmont to his growing collection. His Preakness demonstrated, to the satisfaction of many, that he is a much better horse than most of us believed. He went a first quarter in a zippy 22 seconds and change and still had enough left to turn back late challenges.

No one was less surprised at the outcome than War Emblem's trainer, Bob Baffert.

"We didn't go bragging on him last week because we didn't want to make him more of a marked horse than was already the case," he said. "But the secret is out now. I feel like Phil Jackson when he took over as coach of the Los Angeles Lakers. This horse has no distance limitations at all. The shorter distances of the Derby and Preakness were harder for him because he had to make use of himself, but long-range cruising, as in the Belmont Stakes, is easy for him. This is the horse we've been waiting for. The Triple Crown experience we had with Silver Charm and Real Quiet should be helpful."

With the help of Victor Espinoza, who contributed another well-judged ride, War Emblem had a good trip in the Preakness. One of his principal opponents, Proud Citizen, the Derby second, did not have a good trip and finished third.

"We got kissed off wide on the first turn and lost our position," trainer Wayne Lukas said. "Proud Citizen spent the next mile trying to regain it, and he eventually did, but it cost him something in the way of physical reserve, and he was unable to put away the winner. You can't win the big races if things don't break your way. But that is part of the game. We're going on to the Belmont Stakes. This is a three-round fight and we've seen in recent Belmonts that it differs a lot from the Derby and Preakness."

The only other Preakness horse to perform creditably was the 45-1 Magic Weisner, whose form has been good all season. Richard Migliore, with a fine ride, earned a good trip for Magic Weisner, who came off the pace with a strong move to earn second money of $200,000. There is some question about Magic Weisner's participation in the Belmont.

He deserves the chance. The same can't be said for many of the others, and all signs point to a Triple Crown triumph by War Emblem.