SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- Although Bet Twice and Alysheba have been in the public eye for months, their most recent battle in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park was a revelation about their talents.

At least it was for The Washington Post's racing columnist, who has been thoroughly wrong about these colts on two counts: Alysheba does not need the diuretic Lasix to do his best. Although he lost the Haskell when trainer Jack Van Berg elected not to treat him with the medication, Alysheba's performance was as good as any in his career. Contrary to the impression a few months ago that the current generation of 3-year-olds is a mediocre group, Bet Twice and Alysheba have disproved that notion. Both are admirable racehorses.

These conclusions from the Haskell have helped set the stage for the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Saturday. The $1 million event won't be clouded by questions about medication. It doesn't rest on any phony hype for overrated horses. It is going to be a genuinely great championship confrontation -- attracting not only Bet Twice and Alysheba but also the highly regarded Java Gold, Temperate Sil, Gulch and Fortunate Moment. Officials here are preparing to handle the largest crowd in Saratoga's history.

This has come to pass because the careers of Bet Twice and Alysheba have developed in a way much different from the usual pattern of Triple Crown runners.

Three-year-olds usually are drilled so hard before the spring classics and raced so hard in them that they tail off thereafter. Relatively few winners of Triple Crown events go on to show great new dimensions to their talents. Last year, Ferdinand, Snow Chief and Danzig Connection each hit the peak of his career with his classic victory.

So when Alysheba beat Bet Twice in an excruciatingly slow Kentucky Derby, and then won the Preakness in moderate time, I consulted my speed figures and consigned him to the category of forgettable classic winners like Gato Del Sol, Sunny's Halo and Deputed Testamony.

I was unmoved when one of the colleagues I most respect, Steve Davidowitz, argued against my assessment: "There are ways to judge horses besides looking at figures, and one of them is to look at their athleticism. What Alysheba did in the Kentucky Derby {recovering from a near fall at the top of the stretch} was one of the most extraordinary things you'll ever see on a race track. So what if he ran in 2:03?"

It was not until the Haskell Invitational that the athletic virtues of Alysheba and Bet Twice were obvious to the rest of us dunderheads. It was remarkable even that the colts were still fit and sharp after going through the wringer of the Triple Crown series; plenty of 3-year-olds need months of rest by this stage of their campaign.

But what they did in the Haskell was more remarkable still. Bet Twice and Alysheba were facing a formidable rival, Lost Code, who was the only speed horse in the field. Neither of the favorites could afford to let Lost Code get too far in front.

So both Bet Twice and Alysheba were forced to change their customary styles and chase the front-runner. In the vast majority of cases, a horse like Lost Code will have an insuperable advantage when he can control the race in this fashion. But Bet Twice and Alysheba played Lost Code's game and ran him down in the stretch, with Bet Twice winning a three-horse photo in the excellent time of 1:47 for the 1 1/8 miles.

From the standpoint of speed figures, every race these horses have run together -- Derby, Preakness, Belmont, Haskell -- has been faster than the one preceding it. The 3-year-olds are now running at least as well as the country's top older horses (Broad Brush, Waquoit, Ferdinand), which is the acid test of any 3-year-old crop.

While I have revised most of my opinions about Alysheba and Bet Twice, I am still somewhat mystified by the Lasix factor in their rivalry. Van Berg was clearly right that Alysheba didn't need Lasix in the Haskell, but the colt's poor performance without Lasix in the Belmont remains unexplained. Horses of this caliber rarely run bad races for no reason. I can only guess that a horse's form may sometimes decline in its first race without Lasix, and then return to normal thereafter -- assuming the horse isn't a severe bleeder who can't live without it. If Alysheba had used Lasix in the Haskell, maybe he would have been heading for another bad performance in the Travers.

But with the Lasix issue resolved, there is no reason to think that the Travers will be anything but a classic battle. Even those of us who once staunchly refused to join the fan clubs of Bet Twice and Alysheba are now savoring the prospects.