Would Charismatic have won the Belmont Stakes if . . .

Questions beginning this way are being asked by many fans after the colt broke down and finished third in his bid to complete a sweep of the Triple Crown.

But the main unanswered question about his loss does not involve the injury -- a fracture of bones in his left leg that has ended his racing career. The most relevant subject of speculation is this: Would Charismatic have won the Belmont Stakes if jockey Chris Antley had ridden him more patiently?

Before a record crowd of 85,818, Charismatic dueled all the way with the filly Silverbulletday, took the lead as he entered the stretch and then began to weaken. The eventual winner, Lemon Drop Kid, took command before Charismatic suffered his injury. Antley thought that the mishap occurred right at the finish line, and thus it did not affect the outcome of the 131st Belmont.

The injury almost certainly was a random event of the sort that can happen to any thoroughbred under stress. Charismatic's trainer, Wayne Lukas, has been criticized in the past for thrusting horses into big races when he shouldn't have run them; this was the fifth time a Lukas colt has suffered a career-ending injury in a Triple Crown event. But even the Lukas-bashers won't hold him responsible for this misfortune. Charismatic had given no sign of physical problems before the Belmont. Lukas said: "All week we talked about how maintenance-free this horse was and how durable he is. In racing, these things happen and we have to deal with them."

While Lukas doesn't deserve to be the object of second-guessing, Antley does.

Charismatic won each of the first two legs of the Triple Crown with a strong rally. His style appeared well-suited to the 1 1/2-mile Belmont. With $5 million on the line, why would Antley choose to alter the colt's style and send him to the lead?

With little speed in the Belmont field, Silverbulletday was expected to go to the front. Antley and Lukas -- as well as everybody else involved in the race -- didn't want the filly to race to a long early lead. "We thought the pace would be moderate and we wanted to make sure we were in range," Lukas said. But instead of merely putting Charismatic within striking range, Antley elected to race head-and-head with the filly. Horses don't often win the Belmont by dueling early with a formidable rival.

The leaders sped the first half-mile in 47 3/5 seconds -- a solid pace for a 1 1/2-mile race. By contrast, when Swale led all the way in 1984, he covered the first half mile in 49 2/5 seconds. When the past two Triple Crown winners, Affirmed and Seattle Slew, captured the Belmont, they set a pace of :50 and :48 2/5, respectively. Even after being pressured all the way, Charismatic lost by only 1 1/2 lengths. If he had benefited from an easy trip, as Lemon Drop Kid did -- saving ground much of the way, stalking the leaders -- I believe he would have won.

However, if he were a colt worthy of winning the Triple Crown, he should have been able to overcome adversity to beat the likes of Lemon Drop Kid and runner-up Vision and Verse. Although Charismatic has been romanticized because of his rise from claiming races, and he may be mythologized after the heartbreaking end of his career Saturday, he did not belong on a list with Secretariat, Citation and the other immortals who have swept the Triple Crown.

Charismatic was a tough competitor, but he was able to become a star only because his rival 3-year-olds were so undistinguished. Menifee, the runner-up in the Derby and the Preakness and a flop in the Belmont, has won a single stakes race in his career. Lemon Drop Kid hadn't won a stakes this year. Vision and Verse's greatest claim to fame was a victory in the Illinois Derby. The winning times in the Triple Crown races confirm the impression that the 3-year-old crop of 1999 is a below-average bunch.

If Charismatic had been born two years earlier, and had competed against Silver Charm, Free House and the rest of the class of '97, he wouldn't have finished first, second or third in any of the Triple Crown races. And if Charismatic had stayed healthy to run against the nation's top older horses later in the year, he would have found himself overmatched. If he were like the other Lukas-trained horses who have won Triple Crown races, his career would have ended not with a bang but a whimper.

Racing fans don't need to weep for Charismatic. He was never going to do anything that topped the drama of his victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, and he departs the sport as a beloved, tragic hero.

CAPTION: Charismatic is led by handlers toward surgery to repair his left leg, which was injured in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.