01/16/2002 1:00AM

Three may be the magic number


PHILADELPHIA - David Hofmans has agonized over the Triple Crown preps for Siphonic. He really did not want to run the colt in January, but wanted three preps before the Kentucky Derby.

Which brings us to the obvious question. Is there a right way to do this? Hofmans obviously has forgotten more about training horses than I will ever know so I would not begin to second-guess his plan.

What I do know is that there has been no Triple Crown winner since 1978. The theory du jour seems to be three prep races spread over a reasonably significant period of time.

Bob Baffert tried two preps with Point Given last year. Apparently, the big colt needed three. Sadly, the third prep was the Derby.

In 2000, Fusaichi Pegasus had three (Feb. 19, March 19, April 15). After winning the Derby, his form was gone by the Preakness.

Charismatic, the exception to all rules, had seven preps. And nearly won the 1999 Triple Crown.

Real Quiet had three preps in 1998, but it was really only two. His Jan. 18 race in the slop at Golden Gate was a waste. Like Point Given, Real Quiet ended his 2-year-old season in the Hollywood Futurity and got ready for Kentucky by running in the San Felipe Stakes and Santa Anita Derby. He was perfect on the first Saturday in May while Point Given was far from it.

Point Given was perfect in the rest of the Triple Crown. Real Quiet came as close as any horse will ever come to winning the Crown without winning it.

Silver Charm had three preps in 199, but had no fall 2-year-old season. Like Real Quiet and Point Given, Silver Charm's last two preps were in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby. And Charm just missed winning the Triple Crown.

Those preps worked perfectly for Baffert with Real Quiet and Silver Charm. They did not work so well with Point Given or, perhaps, the big colt was just too close to the suicidal Derby pace. The two preps obviously had Point Given better for the Belmont Stakes than either Real Quiet or Silver Charm.

Clearly, Hofmans is using the Baffert model with Siphonic. The difference is that he is starting Siphonic in Saturday's Santa Catalina Stakes before waiting on the San Felipe and the Santa Anita Derby.

Looking back at the last three Triple Crown winners (the only Triple Crown winners in 53 years) is an interesting history lesson. Trying to make comparisons between horses of the 1970's and 2000's is very difficult. Training methods, especially for the major races, are very different.

How different? Secretariat had three preps. But his first was not until March 17. He raced again April 7 and April 21. By the time he won the Belmont, he had raced six times in 12 weeks. If any trainer tried to do that now, they would take his license away.

Seattle Slew's three preps were not dissimilar to Secretariat's. They were March 9, March 26, and April 23.

Affirmed's four preps were March 8, March 18, April 2, and April 16. That's four races in 40 days before the Derby. Laz Barrera would be arrested if he was alive and attempted that today.

Anybody notice a pattern? In those days, they were not so worried about spacing races. Once they got them cranked up, they let them roll.

It's probably not fair to compare Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed to horses of today or any day. Regardless of how they were trained, it is obvious all three would be on any top 10 list of horses to have ever raced in America. That they showed up in the space of five years likely was just a freak of nature.

Anyway, David Hofmans has made his choice. Siphonic clearly is a serious Derby candidate. How serious? We'll see. How about the plan? We'll see about that, too.