04/30/2003 11:00PM

Whither racing's enduring greats?

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It was 25 years ago that Affirmed and Alydar began the greatest Triple Crown rivalry ever in the 104th Kentucky Derby. The extent to which the game has changed radically in the intervening quarter century will be on full display in the 129th Derby Saturday at Churchill Downs.

Affirmed and Alydar represented the apex of an era when the very best American racehorses suggested their greatness as 2-year-olds and proved it by coming back to dominate their contemporaries at 3. Racing fans formed allegiance to the best juveniles, anxiously awaited their sophomore debuts, and had months to anticipate the showdowns of the Triple Crown. Affirmed and Alydar met six times as 2-year-olds, separating themselves from their contemporaries and setting the stage for the dramas of the following spring.

Compare those 2-year-olds of 1977 to what is left of the 2-year-olds of 2002. There were 13 Grade 1 and Grade 2 stakes for juveniles last year and not a single winner of those races has made it to the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Every horse who crossed the wire first or second in a Grade 1 race last year is out - Vindication, Sky Mesa, Toccet, Whywhywhy, Pretty Wild, Icecoldbeeratreds, and Kafwain. The remaining Grade 2 winners, Zavata and Soto, are absent, as well as the stakes-placed Truckle Feature, Erinsouthernman, Hold That Tiger, Wildcat Heir, Spite the Devil, Chief Planner, Bull Market, Listen Indy, Most Feared, and Bham. That's 19 horses who didn't make it, more than the 17 who will be in the gate Saturday.

The only Derby entrants who won graded stakes at 2 are 50-1 shot Lone Star Sky, who won the six-furlong Grade 3 Bashford Manor 10 months ago, and Peace Rules, who won the Grade 3 Generous last November on grass. Domestic Dispute, who was moved up to second via disqualification in the Grade 1 Hollywood Futurity, has struggled so badly that Bob Baffert sold him this week rather than give himself an extra bullet for the Derby.

It has been a particularly unlucky season but closer to the norm than to the exception. The last four Derby winners - War Emblem, Monarchos, Fusaichi Pegasus, and Charismatic - accomplished virtually nothing at 2. During the 1970's, six 2-year-old champions came back to win the Derby at 3. It hasn't happened since.

Has something gone terribly awry with the breed, or is it too much to hope that a true champion can dominate his peers, or at least compete at the top of his division, for his first two seasons on the track? In addition to doing little at 2, the last four Derby winners combined to win a total of three races after May of their 3-year-old seasons.

What makes it all particularly puzzling is that the best theoretically should be getting better and more durable, through selective breeding, advances in veterinary medicine, and horsemanship. Instead, the best horses seem more fragile than ever and championship seasons and careers are growing shorter and less compelling.

The Derby is still a dandy event and in some ways a better gambling game than ever, but it seems less a gauntlet for greatness than a kind of frenzied, one-time crap shoot. Instead of judging how the previous year's best 2-year-olds have progressed, fans are left to weigh last-minute purchases, throat operations, and the uncanny dominance of a few trainers.

Empire Maker, by virtue of running third in the Remsen last November in his second career start, may have the strongest 2-year-old form in this year's Derby field. He is a deserving Derby favorite based on his Florida Derby and Wood Memorial victories and he's a good horse worth rooting for to become even more. Still it was disconcerting to hear Dr. John Chandler of Juddmonte Farms say earlier this week that even if Empire Maker missed the Derby and never raced again, he would be worth $40 million at stud. It makes you wonder how many more times we'll see Empire Maker race if he does win the Derby.

If he, or someone else in this 129th Derby, becomes the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed, it will be hailed as racing's greatest feat in 25 years. Yet even the celebrated Crown would leave Empire Maker or any of his peers with a lot to do before truly deserving to be mentioned in the same breath as Affirmed. (And mind you, this is coming from an unrepentant and incorrigible Alydar fan.)

When Affirmed was retired at the end of his 4-year-old season, he had won 22 of 29 starts, including 14 Grade 1 stakes races. With each passing year, and especially the recent ones, Affirmed's winning three particular races in five weeks, even against the almost equally brilliant Alydar, seems less spectacular an achievement than his being a champion at 2, 3, and 4. Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid did it too, and no one has come close since. The way the game is going, that's a triple that may prove more elusive the Crown, and for even longer than 25 years.