In the Triple Crown races this spring, Affirmed merely beat Alydar. Saturday, in the Travers Stakes, he nearly killed him.

"Jorge (Velasquez) told me it was so tight, when Affirmed came over on Alydar (leaving the half-mile pole on the far turn) that Alydar's nose had to be smack up against Affirmed's rump," Calumet trainer John Veitch declared. "Jorge told me he was within an inch of being dropped of going down. I was afraid, at first, Alydar had been seriously hurt."

What a shame that 50,000 fans, nearly 15,000 more than ever before saw a horse race at historic old Saratoga, should be treated to such a shabby performance by at least one, or maybe two, if not three, of America's finest race riders.

There they were, moving up the backstretch, Laffit Pincay substituting for the injured Steve Cordero on Shake Shake Shake and Valasquez in his regular seat aboard Alydar.

Affirmed had prompted Shake Shake Shake's pace while racing outside the leader, into the backstretch. Pincay asked Affirmed to go to the front after a half-mile in 48.

"It looked to me like Pincay went to sleep on his horse when he took the lead," Veitch said. "He had looked back a little earlier and seen Jorge outside of him. He must have thought Alydar was still there, when he dropped in. It was bad riding on Pincay's part. You might be able to do that in California, but it certainly doesn't go here."

That was a most uncharacteristic cheap shot Veitch took - at California, not Pincay. The racing and race riding in California is as good and as well supervised as that in New York. But Pincay, ordinarily a superior jockey, did make a blind move, a stupid move that left the Saratoga stewards with no recourse but to disqualify Affirmed in favor of Alydar.

Pincay undoubtedly will be suspended for careless riding. Cordero will be held blameless, as will Velasquez. But the incident was more involved.

"The horse Cordero was on was taking me out," Pincay noted.

"The horse Cordero was on was tiring and drifting out from the rail," Veitch remarked.

Once again, Cordero was able to interject himself into an important racing picture even though he was piloting a 15-1 shot that had little chance of winning.

Cordero is becoming particularly adept at this. It is as though he reads the past performances before an important race and says, "Well, I probably can't win, but what can I do to make myself an important factor as to which horse does?"

This is not necessarily terrible. Cordero is the best day-in, day-out jockey in the world today. He is smart, shrewd, canny and calculating. Saturday he had wanted to ride Affirmed. He had ridden that colt at 2, only to switch to Darby Creek Road. But trainer Laz Barrera elected to bring Pincay in from California to substitute for Cauthen, instead of going with Cordero.

There were insinuations late Saturday by members of the Affirmed camp that Cordero purposely pushed Affirmed out, going to the far turn, in order to create racing room for his pal Velasquez. I don't buy it. I believe Cordero was just in there to raise a little hell, as has become his trademark in recent years in rich stakes he probably can't win.

One also can speculate as to whether Velasquez was "shrewd" as Veitch contended, or a little dumb for having driven Alydar into the opening Cordero helped create. True, that is the way to save ground, but taking the short way home is always the dangerous route. You certainly can't condemn Velasquez for what he did but one must be careful before automatically praising his action.

Whatever, these three brilliant jockeys - three of the five finest in the nation, certainly - combined to put on a show one might expect to see provided by three bugboys at Charles Town or the Timonium Fair. And the winner, of course, was Cauthen.

"This would never have happened if Steve had been healthy," an Affirmed fan was heard to mumble on the way to the parking lot. He was right. Cauthen doesn't seem to make costly mistakes. But Pincay usually doesn't either.

There are those who believe the stewards' decision in favor of Alydar was only fair, in that Alydar deserved to win. There's a case of simple arithmetic: Alydar lost at least four lengths when Affirmed cut him off; Affirmed finished first by less than two lengths. Therefore, Alydar was two lengths better.

This is the sort of addition and subtraction guaranteed to get a better into the poor house. I have seen A&A's last five races. Nothing happened Saturday to make me think Alydar was going to reverse the Triple trend.

Affirmed was in complete control, dictating pace, position and purse money when Pincay became punchy. It wasn't the horse's fault. Affirmed was playing with Alydar through the stretch, although Alydar deserves tremendous credit for rallying again after having been traumatized.

Nope. In order for Alydar to beat Affirmed fair and square, without a decree from the stewards' stand, he is going to need help. He cannot do it alone, in a match race context.

Unfortunately, the way Barrera sounded after Saturday, Affirmed might not provide Alydar with that kind of an opportunity in, say, the Marlboro or the Woodward.

Barrera was mad. Veitch was disgusted. Patrice Wolfson, the wife of Affirmed's owner, was crying. Velasquez was visibly upset. Pincay was embarrased.

Only Cordero was smiling. He usually is. Saturday, in the 109th Travers, he rode Shake Shake Shake. The racing world is still rattling and rolling from what happened.