06/09/2002 11:00PM

War Emblem can be labeled good, not great


NEW YORK - The sun rose Sunday morning, in the east, as usual. People went about their business. Racetracks across America ran as scheduled. Life went on, even if the Triple Crown went unclaimed for yet another year.

Make no mistake, many people wanted to see War Emblem win Saturday's Belmont Stakes and be the first horse in 24 years to win the Triple Crown. Why else would 103,222 people show up at Belmont Park - the largest crowd ever to attend a sporting event of any kind in New York State, according to Gov. George Pataki - and why else would millions tune in on television?

There is disappointment that history was not made. There was a palpable feeling among many that this would be the year, and that added to the disappointment. But greatness can't be manufactured. Either you belong, or you don't, and in the end, War Emblem simply didn't belong with the elite group of 11 horses who were able to win the Triple Crown.

Sure, War Emblem had excuses in the Belmont. He stumbled badly at the start, and that took him out of his game. Suddenly, his free-running nature became a limitation instead of an asset because he found himself caught behind a group of horses, eating dirt, and he didn't like it. He couldn't overcome it.

The true greats overcome bad luck and their limitations.

Seattle Slew, who won the Triple Crown in 1977, was a free-running horse, too, and like War Emblem was a sleek, near-black specimens. That is probably why many people drew parallels between them. But there is a world of difference between them. Seattle Slew refused to bow to adversity. Do you remember what a terrible trip he overcame to win the Kentucky Derby? Here's the chart footnote:

"Seattle Slew swerved sharply to the outside into Get the Axe after failing to break smartly, was rushed to the leaders early placing Sir Sir in slightly close quarters, continuing through tight quarters nearing the end of the opening quarter. Seattle Slew forced his way through moving Flag Officer, Affiliate, and Bob's Dusty out. Continuing in full stride, Seattle Slew engaged For the Moment at that point to duel for the lead from the outside to the top of the stretch, at which stage he disposed of that one when put to extreme pressure, drew off with a rush, and prevailed under intermittent urging."

War Emblem didn't rush up to go head-and-head for the lead after his bad start Saturday. He didn't bull his way through between horses to get near the lead, and he didn't keep going once he did strike the front. It's impossible to quantify exactly how much War Emblem's bad start cost him in the Belmont. But considering the way he surrendered nearing the stretch before finishing 19 1/2 lengths behind Sarava, it is fair to say that even if he broke smoothly, he wasn't going to win.

War Emblem is still the fine colt who won the Kentucky Derby and showed tremendous courage winning the Preakness. He is just not Seattle Slew. He isn't Triple Crown great.

Of course, racing would benefit by having a Triple Crown winner in training, gaining greater exposure in the mainstream media and spikes in track attendance. But there should be no great hand-wringing over an opportunity lost, because those benefits would mainly be realized in the short term and wouldn't do anything to address the real problems in the game. Those include takeout, roadblocks to bringing Internet and telephone wagering and televised racing to a wider audience, the perception that the use of performance-enhancing drugs is rampant, and silly scheduling that has virtually identical races like the Stephen Foster, Californian, and Brooklyn all run on the same day, this Saturday.

There should also be no concerns that there will never be another Triple Crown winner. It will now be at least 25 years since Affirmed's Triple Crown, matching the longest gap between Triple Crown winners (Citation in 1948 to Secretariat in 1973). But War Emblem was the fourth in just the last six years to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown, and there have been eight since Affirmed.

A Triple Crown winner will come along, and when he does, there will be no doubt that he belongs.