It has been 21 years since a horse won the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes -- the fabled Triple Crown of racing for 3-year-olds. Since 1978, seven horses have won the first two legs of the grueling test held on three different tracks at three different distances during the brief span of five weeks. But the first six horses failed in the demanding 1 1/2-mile Belmont. Now it's Charismatic's turn. The last to do it was Affirmed, now 24 and living on Jonabell Farm in central Kentucky. Affirmed, at the human equivalent of 75, still looks young enough to win Saturday's Belmont.

Affirmed, long-legged and sleek, casually turned his head to study a visitor to his barn. Like Charismatic, he is a chestnut with a white blaze between the eyes. His eyes sparkle. Standing calmly in his ample stall while being dried after a bath, Affirmed appeared to defy age as he once did rivals on the race track. He is the dean of the stallions' barn, having produced 780 offspring. Last year he bred 51 mares and got 49 in foal. When he is led out the distant end of the barn he is headed toward the nearby breeding shed -- and he knows it.

"As calm and docile as he looks now," said Phillip Hampton, the stallion foreman, "when he goes over there, he's all man."

Affirmed is the pride of Jonabell Farm, as heavenly a place as can be found on earth. It has almost 800 gently rolling acres laced with smooth brown fencing. Horses gambol across the meadows beneath a Kentucky blue sky. Others, heads bent, munch the bluegrass. Foals stand tenderly alongside their mothers, some as still as paintings.

"This is what it's all about," said Jimmy Bell, president of Jonabell, taking in a panorama of grazing horses as he drove his van along a tree-lined road on the property. "You want to keep them out on the good grass. This is great ground here. It raises a very good horse, the reason being the limestone base that's rich in minerals, phosphorus and calcium in particular. What we try to do is let them be horses, let them be athletes, let them be outdoors as much as possible."

Affirmed occupied an end stall in the stallions' barn, an immaculately kept red-brick building on a close-clipped lawn adorned with flowers and trees -- a place even humans would be pleased to call home. The door next to his stall opens out into his own 1 1/2-acre paddock. Such grandeur awaits only the finest champions.

"He has a life befitting his accomplishments throughout his racing career," Bell said. "In the horse game you can count them on your hand -- Seattle Slew, Spectacular Bid, Affirmed. He's in such an elite class that this is the way you would want to see someone taken care of that has given so much to the game."

Affirmed's 1978 Triple Crown was only the 11th in history and fifth since World War II -- following the triumphs of Assault, Citation, Secretariat and Seattle Slew. Affirmed's triple consisted of three stirring victories over the valiant Alydar, the last by a head in a Belmont Stakes still recalled as one of the greatest races ever. As 2-year-olds, Affirmed and Alydar finished one-two five times -- with Alydar winning twice.

But Affirmed beat Alydar by 1 1/2 lengths in the Kentucky Derby and by a neck in the Preakness. In the Belmont, they went stride for stride down the backstretch and into the turn. With 3/16ths of a mile to go, Alydar stuck his nose in front. But Steve Cauthen, then 18 and known as "The Kid," urged on Affirmed until he reclaimed the lead with 20 yards left. Affirmed was retired after the following season with a record of 22 victories, five seconds and one third in 29 starts.

"He was a tenacious warrior," Bell said. "He was not going to give it up no matter if it was a nose, a neck, whatever. He had a will to win. We've got another horse here, Holy Bull, he was the same way. They know when they're challenged -- you better believe it. That's what separates these horses."

Charismatic, transformed from claiming-race entrant in February to Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner in May, can become Affirmed's long-awaited successor with a victory Saturday. But if Charismatic is truly lucky, he will live to a ripe age like Affirmed in the bluegrass of Kentucky.

"Affirmed is a horse with what we call command presence," Bell said as Hampton led him on a walk on the front lawn. "When he steps out, when he looks around, it's distinctive. He has a bright look in his eye. He knows what's going on around him. He retired absolutely sound, which is unheard of in this day and age. He has a lovely shoulder to him. There's tremendous balance to him, even in his old age. Look at his ankles; there's not even a puff to his ankles, no hint of the wear and tear of racing. He exudes quality and class."

Of the 780 horses he has sired, 550 have made it to the races, including 70 stakes winners and 11 champions. He has had numerous daughters of note, either as runners or broodmares. Flawlessly, the champion grass mare of 1992 and 1993, probably is the best-known of his progeny to date.

"We have tried consciously to limit the number of mares he will breed each year," Bell said. "Our goal is to keep Affirmed alive and healthy, not to see how many mares we can breed to him. This year he will breed in the mid-forties. He'll get 90 percent of those mares in foal each year. So he's still very fertile. Excellent in the breeding shed."

Originally, Affirmed was retired to Spendthrift Farm and later Calumet. But both those institutions experienced bankruptcy. In 1992 the syndicate owning Affirmed sought a more constant environment and moved him to Jonabell Farm. Jonabell's owner, John A. Bell, 80, is retired and lives with his wife in an elegant white home on the property. His son, Jimmy, who now runs the operation, said Affirmed was "in the unusual category" because the average life span of a thoroughbred is in the mid-teens.

"Certainly at 20 you're into extra innings," he said. "At 24 you just say thank you for every year."

In the past year and a half Affirmed has shown small signs of age, said Bell. "He used to have a coat that looked like a copper penny. It just glistened in the sunlight. Now, there's a little more of the gray hairs getting into his fetlocks, around his eyes and his face. You see a hint of rib now where it used to be just a sculpted body."

Still, he looks like a contemporary of Holy Bull, a comparatively youthful 8. The 1993 horse of the year, Holy Bull is a gray stallion becoming increasingly whiter. On this morning he had a date with the mare April Honors. Affirmed had the day off. Led from his stall, Affirmed radiated a stately calm. Accustomed to the routine of his racing afterlife, he ran happily when turned out into his paddock. He stopped to roll on his back in the grass, then headed off again at a gallop into the distance, following the curve of the fencing until he settled under a tree. There he was standing when Cauthen drove up in a white van with his wife and two young daughters.

Cauthen, 39, graying slightly, owns a horse farm in Florence, Ky., south of Cincinnati. He has six mares. The pride of his stable is a little unnamed foal by Affirmed. Cauthen showed off a framed photograph of the foal and its mother.

"Every time I see Affirmed I just stand in appreciation simply because, besides being a wonderful horse, he was a wonderful part of my life," said Cauthen, squinting into the sun. "The whole thing about the '78 Triple Crown was the great rivalry with him and Alydar and the fact that he had the heart and the courage and the desire to win. There wasn't that much between those two horses, but maybe that extra little bit of courage and determination won us a Triple Crown.

"The thing about the Belmont was that Alydar hooked us seven furlongs out and I knew it was a dogfight. You hadn't been a mile and a half. So you didn't know. I knew Affirmed would fight, but I didn't know if he would have the stamina or whatever. At that point nobody knows. That's the big question about Charismatic. He looks like a horse that may have it. But there's been six horses that had chances, horses like Pleasant Colony and Alysheba. But they didn't do it. You don't know if all of a sudden he's going to be cruising at the quarter-pole and then die in your hands. Strange things happen when you go an extra quarter of a mile."

Affirmed walked up close to the tall fence and looked over it, almost as if he wanted to say hello to his old rider.

"We had a connection, no doubt," Cauthen said. "I believe he knew me because he was such an intelligent horse. I think he knew exactly who I was and he knew exactly what I was asking him to do. But my connection with him was on his back. If I got on his back I think he might . . . "

He stopped speaking. Those days were gone.

"It's been too long ago," Cauthen said. "But that's when he knew me. When I was on his back he knew me."

CAPTION: (This graphic was not available) THE TRIPLE-CROWNING OF AFFIRMED

CAPTION: Affirmed, above, won Triple Crown in 1978. Charismatic has won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and will go for Belmont Saturday.