05/20/2001 11:00PM

Ah, to be in Baltimore in May


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Submitted for your approval, with all humility, this Californian's guide to the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

If I can't be in Maryland this week, I want to make sure someone is having my share of the fun.

When first encountered years ago, it took all of 20 minutes to get comfortable with Baltimore and to understand why so many horsemen, fans, and racing journalists have a weakness for the Preakness.

Pimlico is what it is, a work that seems forever in progress, and progress is all uphill. But once you leave the track and make your way downtown, or to Mount Vernon, or Little Italy, let's face it - a few days of Baltimore is never enough.

For starters, the Preakness is the only Triple Crown race with a harbor, tall-masted sailing ships, and a fortress where Francis Scott Key watched "the rockets' red glare" and "bombs bursting in air" and was inspired to write a patriotic song (never mind that our national anthem is really just a series of incomplete sentences ending in a question mark, as observed by Kurt Vonnegut).

To be precise, the harbor is actually part of the mouth of the Patapsco River. But don't sweat it. The locals are laid back and require nothing more than your reverent appreciation of Camden Yards, home of the Orioles.

Still, there is nothing better than a lazy cruise around Baltimore's inner harbor in a water taxi, on a late afternoon a few days before the Preakness, with a belly full of steamed crab and a sure thing on Saturday. More than one unwary visitor has dozed off and missed his stop.

If you are lucky, and you wake up in time, you will find yourself disembarked at Fells Point, where the cops from "Homicide" used to hang out amidst the taverns, the head shops, and the used record stores. There is one establishment crammed with exotic maritime antiques and another offering goods made exclusively from hemp.

For those who enjoy a pilgrimage, Baltimore is a city where great artists have been laid to rest. F. Scott Fitzgerald, a distant relative of the previously mentioned songwriter F. Scott Key, is buried in nearby Rockville, while the grave of Edgar Allan Poe, located in town, gets plenty of traffic around Halloween.

Fitzgerald came to Baltimore to be near his ailing wife, who was a patient at Phipps Clinic. He lived in Towson, then moved to 1307 Park Ave., where he came up with the title to his 1935 novel, "Tender Is the Night." Poe, on the other hand, spent just enough time in Baltimore to drink himself to death there in 1849. He was 40. Fitzgerald made it to 44.

Apparently, it's healthier to be a horse trainer in Baltimore. The lives of local heroes Buddy Raines and Henry Clark spanned most of the 20th century. When they trained, it was a treat to spend at least part of Preakness week in their presence, soaking up the stories of a racing game long past. It was as satisfying as a trip to the Babe Ruth Museum, located near the ballpark, which is not to be confused with the Eubie Blake Museum, over on Water Street.

For those fortunate enough to gain access to the Pimlico backstretch during Preakness week, bring a deck chair. Unlike the Derby, with its pockets of interest sprawled all over the map, Preakness news is usually centered in a single barn, where the Derby winner traditionally resides in the same stall, year after year, rife with the vibes of Secretariat, Affirmed, and Seattle Slew.

There have been exceptions. Neil Drysdale, protective of his horse and allergic to the pollens given off by a large thicket of press, stabled Fusaichi Pegasus on the far side of the Pimlico property last year, closer to the Clyburn Arboretum than the grandstand paddock.

Wayne Lukas, when he wins the Derby, puts his champ in a stall at the opposite end of the Preakness barn with his other Preakness week runners. Sometimes he enjoys a playful diversion, attaching the webbing of the Derby winner to the stall of an innocent bystander. It was amazing how many visitors became convinced Thunder Gulch was a bay.

In the end, the Preakness is the most thankless of the Triple Crown events. Only one thing really matters. If the Derby winner does not win the Preakness, then the result soon fades from view. Disagree? Then go ahead and name the Preakness winners of 1990-1996. Good luck.

The best-case scenario - at least for the sheer pleasure of anticipation - is always a close Preakness finish with the Derby winner coming out on top. That way, the Triple Crown is in play, but the Belmont Stakes looms as no cinch. That's what happened with Carry Back in 1961, with Majestic Prince in 1969, with Affirmed in 1978, with Sunday Silence in 1989, and with Silver Charm in 1997.

If Monarchos is going to join them, he will need to beat a born-again Point Given. Otherwise, the 2001 Preakness will be remembered more for the hors d'oeuvres than the main course.