06/17/2005 12:00AM

Who's tops among near-Triple Crown champs?

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Any list of smashing wins by 3-year-olds in Triple Crown races must include: Afleet Alex (above) in the 2005 Belmont, Smarty Jones in the 2004 Preakness, and Point Given in the 2001 Belmont.

PHOENIX - Many say we're unfortunate not to have had a Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. I think we should look at it from the other direction - we've been blessed with many fine 3-year-olds in the interim, and a number of wonderful stories in the pursuit of the Triple Crown. Remember, in 10 of the past 12 years we've had winners of two Triple Crown races so we've seen some dominance and brilliance in the ranks, even if no horse has moved up behind Affirmed on the big list.

Afleet Alex has certainly emerged as an important horse. But is he the best, or even second-best, among the last five winners of two of the three Triple Crown races? The others are Point Given, War Emblem, Funny Cide, and Smarty Jones.

Doubtless, Afleet Alex is a top horse. Throw out his Rebel disaster and his record is unassailable. Surely, he gets additional points because of the trouble he overcame to win the Preakness. And his Belmont was a smashing example of his dominance among his peers. Yet as good as he looked in both races, don't forget about how we were oohing and aahing over Funny Cide's monster Preakness win, or about how Smarty Jones raised the roof when he drew off in the Preakness by a record margin, and about how we were ready to put an 'S' on the silks of Point Given after his Belmont triumph. Each of those three performances certainly ranks as good as anything Afleet Alex has done.

From a Beyer Speed Figure standpoint, Afleet Alex has done well, his last four figs being 108, 99, 112, and 106 (in his Kentucky Derby prep, the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont, respectively). But you could say both Smarty Jones (109, 107, 118, 100) and Point Given (110, 99, 111, 114) did better in the same four races.

With that in mind, I'd have to place Afleet Alex third, behind Point Given and Smarty Jones, and ahead of Funny Cide and War Emblem, at least at this stage of the game.

After all, Smarty was perfect until the Belmont, and in many ways he has been the most celebrated and popular American racehorse of the last decade. Point Given, meanwhile, may not have had such a following at first, but he was certainly as good or better than Afleet Alex at 2, and his record as a 3-year-old goes down as one of the most brilliant in some time, even without a Derby win. It was unfortunate for him he tossed in a rare dud on Derby Day, but it's not like that was unprecedented. (Holy Bull did it, too, for example.) After that, however, came a tour de force - romps in the Preakness and Belmont, a professional win in the Haskell, and another romp in the Travers, which stamped him as one of the best horses not to win the Triple Crown. In my book, Point Given ranks behind only Spectacular Bid, Sunday Silence, and Alysheba among double Triple Crown race winners in the 27 years since Affirmed.

As far as Funny Cide and War Emblem go, they are fine animals. No matter what occurred afterward no one can take the Derby from them. Both picked the right day to peak. Funny Cide, overall, is a quality horse, a cut or two below the best in all likelihood, but a good representative of Derby winners, to be sure.

War Emblem might be one of the most intriguing runners of the past 20 years. His form as a juvenile and early in his 3-year-old season was modest at best. Then came his huge Illinois Derby win prior to dazzling efforts in the Derby and Preakness. War Emblem was a classic shooting star - he came out of the darkness, lit up the sky for a brief time (and, obviously, the right time) before fizzling and fading away.

One way I'd gauge these five is how I think the wagering would go if they all ran in a 10-furlong race. My line would be something like this: Point Given 7-5, Smarty Jones 9-5, Afleet Alex 5-2, Funny Cide 10-1, and War Emblem 12-1.

The one advantage Afleet Alex has over Point Given and Smarty Jones is that his career is far from over. While in my book I can't yet put him on par with those two - and I don't want to hear his jockey, Jeremy Rose, say I'm knocking his horse, because that's the last thing I'm doing - he's got the time and opportunity to better them. What if he wins the Haskell, Travers and/or Super Derby? What if he beats elders, something the other two did not do? What if he goes on to race at 4 and dominate as he's doing now, something the other two did not do? Should any or even some of these things come to pass, Afleet Alex will move to the top of this group. And to be honest with you, I know I'm like a lot of others in racing - I'm rooting for him.