When Secretariat was pursuing the Triple Crown in 1973, his quest was considered so dramatic that the major news magazines put his picture on their covers and speculated at length about his chances of sweeping America's three most famous races. No prize in the sport had been so elusive, so coveted.

Thus it seems surprising that the trainers of two prominent 3-year-olds chose not to covet it this year. First Henry Clark decided to keep Linkage out of the Kentucky Derby and await Saturday's Preakness. Then Eddie Gregson opted to skip the Preakness with his Kentucky Derby winner, Gato del Sol. These men are not kooks. They believe that the Triple Crown series, coupled with the prep races that must precede it, constitutes too tough a grind for a horse. Plenty of trainers share their opinion.

If the trainers of 3-year-olds in future years also share their willingness to skip one or more of the races, the Triple Crown may not mean much any more. Are the objections to it well-founded? Does it deserve to be considered the ultimate test of the American thoroughbred?

Nobody ever sat down and planned what the Triple Crown ought to be. It evolved in a haphazard fashion. When Sir Barton captured the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes in 1919, his accomplishment did not have a name. But in the 1930s, Daily Racing Form columnist Charles Hatton began referring to the three races as the Triple Crown, borrowing the concept from the long-entrenched English Triple Crown that dates back to the early 19th century. By 1941, Hatton's phrase had taken hold, and newspaper headlines after the Belmont Stakes that year said "WHIRLAWAY WINS TRIPLE CROWN." In 1950, the title was made formal and the Thoroughbred Racing Association created a Triple Crown trophy.

It sat on the shelf for many years. Between 1948 and 1973, no horse was able to win the Triple Crown, and many racing people were beginning to think that it was unwinnable. Thus did Secretariat's feat spark such excitement. But even after Seattle Slew and Affirmed did it in 1977 and 1978, they didn't cheapen the feat; they demonstrated that it takes a genuinely great horse--Hall of Fame material, in fact--to win the Triple Crown.

If a committee was trying to plan a Triple Crown in a rational fashion, it might choose to run the races at a greater range of distances (the English Triple Crown tests a horse from a mile to 1 3/4 miles). It might space the races more (the English Triple Crown starts in May and ends in September). But it would be difficult to find any formula that has been a more reliable gauge of greatness than the present one. It takes a Citation or a Secretariat to win it. It unfailingly defeats less-than-great horses (like Pleasant Colony or Bold Forbes or Little Current).

To win the Triple Crown, a horse must have the tractability to cope with a big field at Churchill Downs, the speed to win at Pimlico, the stamina to win at Belmont. But, most of all, he has to be tough and durable to do it all in a five-week period.

The careers of the horses who have won the Triple Crown belie the notion that the series is too demanding; almost all of them have gone on to greater glory. But it is tough, and this emphasis is distinctively American.

Our horses are subjected to much more stress than the coddled thoroughbreds of Europe, who may run a handful of well-spaced races in their careers and be whisked off to stud. And it is because of this emphasis that America is breeding the best and toughest thoroughbreds in the world. It is the last thing we should want to change in our racing.

Jockey Jack Kaenel, who has the ride on Aloma's Ruler in the Preakness, escaped with a slight concussion, according to Dr. Jerome Coller, when his car was involved in a traffic accident today on a road near the Pimlico track.

Kaenel, 16, was wearing his jockey's helmet at the time of the incident as was his passenger, apprentice Jerry Jewell.