06/05/2006 12:00AM

Triple Crown series: If it ain't broke . . .

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NEW YORK - It started all over again moments after Barbaro took his fateful misstep 100 yards or so into the Preakness Stakes. And it might increase in intensity this week when people delve into the past performances for Saturday's Belmont Stakes and realize that not only will this Belmont have to do without the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness winner for the first time since 2000, but also this Belmont will for the first time since 1983, according to the New York Racing Association's press office, lack a starter who even competed in both the Derby and Preakness.

What is it that Barbaro's accident triggered, and could be fueled by a Belmont this weekend that might not meet its usual high standards? People again are calling for a change in the structure of the Triple Crown.

Those who maintain that the Triple Crown no longer works in its current form most often base their argument on the belief that the 3-year-old Thoroughbred racehorse of today is simply no longer suited to, or even capable of, competing in a series that requires its participants to race three times in five weeks at three different distances, over three different racetracks, in three uniquely demanding events. And invariably, it will follow that the equine toll the Triple Crown appears to take, and the fact that we are now in the longest Triple Crown-winning drought since the inception of the series, is evidence that the Triple Crown is broken, and in need of repair.

Frankly, I find having to have this debate to be both astonishing and, with each passing year we do not have a Triple Crown winner, as predictable as the sun rising in the East.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the traditional structure of the Triple Crown. Although we have well surpassed the 25-year gap between Triple Crown winners Citation and Secretariat - it will be at least 29 years between drinks this time next year - it should not be forgotten that in the last eight years, we came within a nose of a sweep in 1998 by Real Quiet, within a career-ending injury that might well have cost Charismatic in 1999, and within an ill-judged ride in 2004 by Smarty Jones. In fact, in the last nine years we have had six horses come into the Belmont with a shot to become a Triple Crown winner, and in two of the three other years during this period, we had horses complete the Preakness-Belmont Stakes double after losing in the Kentucky Derby. If there was really something wrong with the structure of the Triple Crown, there is no way that in eight of the last nine years, horses would have been able to sufficiently maintain form strong enough to take two-thirds of the Triple Crown, as they have done.

As for the position that 3-year-old Thoroughbreds have suddenly become so fragile that they are unable to meet or survive the demands of the Triple Crown, that doesn't hold water, either. While it is true that Afleet Alex, winner of last year's Preakness and Belmont, and Smarty Jones never raced again after the Triple Crown, and that Point Given, who completed the Preakness-Belmont double in 2001, raced only twice more after the Triple Crown, in the cases of Smarty Jones and Point Given, neither sustained injury serious enough to force their retirements. Instead, rich breeding deals were prime factors in the premature conclusion of their racing careers.

Even with eight-figure stallion syndication deals pulling in the other direction, Silver Charm, who was denied a sweep of the Triple Crown in the 1997 Belmont Stakes, subsequently started 15 times, and Real Quiet made five starts after the Belmont. And though breeding doesn't factor in his situation, Funny Cide has been healthy enough since being denied the Triple Crown in the 2003 Belmont to have made 21 subsequent starts.

It seems that some folks are so desperate to see history made with a Triple Crown sweep that they advocate tinkering with the Triple Crown to make it easier to achieve, which is ironic because there is no other component in the sport that invokes such strong historical comparison. How could anyone draw satisfying parallels between past Triple Crown winners and the winner of an altered Triple Crown made easier in its new format? Would that be fair to the reputations and historical status of all the horses who fell just short in their attempts of a sweep of the Triple Crown as we now know it?

After Barbaro's breakdown in the Preakness, one journalist whose opinion I respect called for the Triple Crown to be made over like this: Run the Derby the first Saturday in May, run the Preakness the first Saturday in June, and run the Belmont at 1 1/4 miles the first Saturday in July. Under that scenario, you might as well tack on the Travers Stakes and call it something like "The Grand Slam for 3-year-olds."

But if you advocate any change in the structure of the Triple Crown, just don't call it the Triple Crown anymore. Because it won't be.