Until the final yards, the duel between Go for Wand and Bayakoa in the Breeders' Cup Distaff had been a classic, one of those races that lovers of the sport would be watching on film 20 years from now. Instead, it became a spectacle that you can't stand to watch again, as Go for Wand snapped her ankle, collapsed, and then struggled to get up again -- only this time on three legs.

In the aftermath of any disaster, people invariably look for explanations, or for culprits. Most television viewers who watched, horrified, as Go for Wand was destroyed surely were speculating how this misfortune could have been avoided.

But trainers, owners and veterinarians all know the distressing answer to that question: It couldn't. When Bayakoa's trainer Ron McAnally was interviewed in the winner's circle after the Distaff, he said sadly: "This is part of the game."

Certainly there have been many cases where breakdowns of horses have been avoidable -- notably when owners and trainers abuse horses for economic expediency. In the 1970s, there was a justifiable public outcry about the use of drugs like Butazolidin that made thoroughbreds keep running when pain should have been telling them to stop. But such medications are illegal in New York and, besides, Go for Wand had been managed judiciously by Billy Badgett, who said yesterday: "She was the soundest horse I've ever trained in my life." Go for Wand, a 3-year-old filly, had been entered in the Distaff because Badgett thought that running her against males in the $3 million Classic would have been too stressful for her.

Often, breakdowns may be traced to racing surfaces, and this was a popular suspicion Saturday at Belmont -- especially in view of the fact that two horses had gone down in the Sprint, an hour before Go for Wand's demise, and two others had broken down the day before. But Belmont has always been a well-maintained track -- neither too hard nor too deep. In any event, the mishaps in the Sprint surely had nothing to do with the condition of the track, for the colt Mr. Nickerson dropped dead of an apparent heart attack, and Shaker Knit fell over him. Gerald McKeon, president of the New York Racing Association, called this series of misfortunes a "statistical abnormality" -- and he is almost certainly correct.

Thoroughbreds are delicate, finely tuned running machines, propelling a half-ton of muscle and bone at speeds up to 40 mph on narrow legs and ankles. If, for some reason, the animal takes one awkward step or its shock-absorption system fails for even a split-second, even a perfectly sound horse can be lost. It can happen in a $2,500 claiming race at Charles Town or it can happen in the most famous race in the world. But because Go for Wand's death happened so conspicuously, it is certain to trigger a backlash against the sport.

The members of the increasingly vocal animal-rights lobby will cite Go for Wand's death as further evidence that thoroughbred racing is cruel and inhumane. But even people who considered themselves racing fans will be soured by the sport. That is what happened after the last such visible racing tragedy -- the death of Ruffian in 1975. In her book, "Tarnished Crown," author Carol Flake wrote that the great filly's death "cost the momentum of the sport.

"Two years earlier, Secretariat's remarkable achievements had gotten people interested in racing again. Her death had told the public that racing wasn't . . . for those who loved animals; it was for cool-headed gamblers who could look at horses as numbers or chances in a lottery. . . . A huge audience had learned the hardest lessons that racing can teach about the cruelty of fortune, the overreaching nature of man, the fleeting nature of success. It was not a lesson that mainstream America was interested in learning in such a fashion."

It is this mixture of fleeting success and cruel fortune that enables horse racing to stir emotions more deeply than any other sport, and which accounts for the enduring popularity of the game over centuries. In the last few months, even casual television viewers have had the chance to witness and appreciate the extremes of emotion that horses can generate. In the spring, as Unbridled was roaring down the Churchill Downs stretch to a victory in the Kentucky Derby, million of people were touched by the sight of trainer Carl Nafzger clutching the colt's 92-year-old owner, Frances Genter, and shouting: "We've won the Kentucky Derby, Mrs. Genter!" And then: "I love you, Mrs. Genter!"

On Saturday, NBC's cameras showed the faces of Badgett and his wife Rose, who was Go for Wand's exercise rider, as they watched the filly's final agony. They were clutching each other for support, fighting back tears, and they both looked dazed and disbelieving that an incipient triumph could turn into tragedy so abruptly. Those faces will be the most indelible images from this whole year of racing.

We would love it, of course, if the sport could produce the joy without the pain, let us savor Frances Genter's elation without having to endure the suffering that the filly and the people around her experienced Saturday. But they go inextricably together. It's part of the game.