05/30/2004 11:00PM

Triple Crown needs no alteration


NEW YORK - Win, lose, or draw, when Smarty Jones goes for the Triple Crown in Saturday's Belmont Stakes, it will be an unprecedented event in the history of American racing. This will be the sixth time in the last eight years a 3-year-old has gone into the Belmont Stakes with a chance to become a Triple Crown winner.

There have been prolific periods of Triple Crown opportunities in the past, although you have to include some horses that were successful in sweeping this series to find a comparable run. There were five Triple Crown chances in eight years from 1941 through 1948 (four were successfully converted). There was another 5-for-8 run from 1966 through Secretariat's successful Triple Crown sweep in 1973. And there were four Triple Crown chances in five years (two of which were successful) from 1977 through 1981. But never before have there been so many opportunities for a Triple Crown sweep in such a short time frame (six in eight years), and the current run includes a streak of three consecutive years for a Triple Crown try (1997, 1998, and 1999), something that has happened only once before (1977, 1978, and 1979).

You would think that such a period in the history of the American Triple Crown would forever silence those who advocate a change in the format of the Triple Crown. But like a bad, greasy meal, this topic keeps coming back on us. As recently as a few weeks ago, just before the Preakness, there was a story in USA Today, prominently played, discussing this matter.

It is incredible that this topic has any life at all, but it does, presumably because we have also gone the longest period of time - 26 years - without a Triple Crown winner. So people, some in the position of authority, have made several recommendations, all of them nonsense, ranging from increasing the time between the three Triple Crown events, to actually changing the distances of the Triple Crown races. The Triple Crown, they say, ruins the careers of too many good horses. If changes aren't made, they threaten, we may never again see a Triple Crown winner.

Think what any alteration of the Triple Crown would do. It would, without question, substantially devalue the Triple Crown by making it easier to win, giving horses nice, graduated distances with plenty of recovery time in between starts. It's no shock that horsemen would want to make a series of races, any series, easier to win. But an altered Triple Crown would bear absolutely no relation to the Triple Crown that only 11 horses have been able to win, making historical comparison almost as meaningless as a revised Triple Crown. Maybe for proponents of a change that would be a welcome byproduct. All of the recent Triple Crown hopefuls, with the notable exception of Smarty Jones, suffered mightily when objectively compared to Triple Crown winners of the past.

Also infuriating is the insinuation that the Triple Crown ruins too many horses. The last I looked, no one is forced under the threat of bodily harm to run any horse in any of the Triple Crown races. It isn't the Triple Crown that ruins horses. It is the people who choose to run ill-prepared, overmatched, and otherwise totally unsuitable horses in Triple Crown races that ruin the careers of so many horses.

But, the most amazing thing about how altering the Triple Crown still has life as an idea is the way it completely ignores how close we came to Triple Crown winners in 1997, 1998, and 1999. In 1997, Silver Charm still had the lead in the shadow of the wire, only to be caught in the final 50 yards by Touch Gold, who, frankly, was probably the better horse at that time, considering he was best when fourth in the Preakness after a nightmare trip. In 1998, Real Quiet sustained the dirtiest beat in the history of horse racing when beaten an inch by Victory Gallop after holding a four-length advantage at the eighth pole. And in 1999, Charismatic was beaten only 1 1/2 lengths for it all despite an imprudent ride from the late Chris Antley and, of course, despite suffering a career-ending fracture during the running.

It also ignores the fact that in terms of Derby and Preakness winners going into the Belmont Stakes, Smarty Jones is more likely to succeed than any horse since Seattle Slew in 1977, who is what Smarty Jones aspires to become - an undefeated Triple Crown winner. I am purposely omitting Affirmed in 1978 and Spectacular Bid in 1979 among the horses most likely to win going into the Belmont because I thought Alydar might get Affirmed this time, and in the case of Spectacular Bid, his jockey, Ron Franklin, never gave me confidence the way Stewart Elliott does on Smarty Jones.

There are many things in racing that can be improved. The Triple Crown, which has stood the test of time, is not one of them. But even if it was, lowering the bar is no way to go about improving anything.