05/23/2002 11:00PM

What chance a Triple Crown?


NEW YORK - What are the chances that War Emblem will win the Belmont Stakes June 8 and become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner? You could argue that the historical likelihood is closer to either 15 percent or 50 percent, depending on how you choose to interpret the ambiguous history of Triple Crown bids in the 20th century.

From Sir Barton in 1919 through Charismatic in 1999, there have been 28 Kentucky Derby winners who went on to win the Preakness, and 26 of those 28 bid for the Crown by running in the Belmont. (Burgoo King in 1932 and Bold Venture in 1936 won the first two legs and did not run in the third.)

Of those 26 bids, 11 were successful (Sir Barton, Gallant Fox, Omaha, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Count Fleet, Assault, Citation, Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed) and 15 were not (Pensive, Tim Tam, Carry Back, Northern Dancer, Kauai King, Forward Pass, Majestic Prince, Canonero, Spectacular Bid, Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and Charismatic.)

So 11 hits and 15 misses translates to a 42.3 percent success rate, which might seem a promising number. If you bisect the century, however, the results are radically different.

From 1900 through 1950, eight of the nine Derby-Preakness winners who tried the Belmont won it, a blistering 88.9 percent rate of success. From 1951 through 1999, however, only 3 of 17 came through, a far bleaker rate of 17.6 percent.

Are these just random streaks within a constant proposition in which the right number over time will continue to be around 42 percent? Or have racing and the Triple Crown changed in the last half-century in ways that have greatly reduced the chances of a Triple Crown winner?

The random-streak interpretation is possible with a data sample as small as just 26 Triple Crown bids. Let's say that completing the triple really is around an even-money proposition and liken it to flipping a coin. If you flip a coin long enough, you indeed will see sequences even stranger than 8 for 9 or 3 for 17, but it would be highly unusual to find both runs within your first 26 flips.

The idea that the coin has changed, though, seems more plausible. Much as we would like to think that War Emblem is part of a great chain, facing the same challenges as Sir Barton and Gallant Fox, his task may be much tougher in 2002.

It is likely he is facing more and better opponents. The average field size for the Belmont has steadily increased since the first half of the 20th century and, even more important, the pool of horses is far deeper. From 1900 through 1950, the annual North American foal crop was around 4,400. From 1951 through 2,000, the average swelled to about 26,000, and the number during the last seven unsuccessful Crown bids was closer to 40,000.

It also seems clear that more good horses from more parts of the country are now involved. The growing popularity and purses of the Triple Crown during the century attracted an increasing number of the nation's top 3-year-olds, and air travel erased geographical restrictions.

Some will also argue plausibly that the 50-year trend toward speed rather than stamina in the American racehorse and in the distances of races on the calendar also play a part. With less long-distance blood in their veins, and less need for their handlers to be as familiar and skilled with training and riding horses to go a mile and a half on the dirt, horses trying the Belmont may be engaging in more of a pure crapshoot than ever before. Fewer horses than ever seem to handle the distance at all, resulting in bizarrely large margins in both victory and defeat.

We already know how hard it is to win the Triple Crown and how special a horse it takes to do it. If the last 50 years are a more accurate indicator than the first 50, it may be even harder than we thought.

Obviously, there's not an accurate constant price on each horse who stands poised for a Triple Crown bid. Secretariat laid over his opposition more than Real Quiet did and had more talent. If you think that War Emblem looks significantly more likely to win than the last seven who have been in his position and lost, perhaps you think 4-5 is a fair price. If not, and if completing the Crown is really closer to a 5-1 shot than a 6-5 shot, it's pretty clear what you're supposed to do at the windows.