05/12/2004 11:00PM

Analysis: Smarty may have his hands full

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It's asking a lot for Rock Hard Ten to win the Preakness in his fourth start. He is no ordinary 3-year-old, however. Runner-up in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby in his third start, he is well rested (six weeks), and facing foes possibly vulnerable wheeling back two weeks after a grueling Kentucky Derby. Rock Hard Ten continues to train strongly. He established his class in a Grade 1, and the form of California-based 3-year-olds has been validated. Further, the 103 Beyer he earned last out was accomplished with a wide trip, and is within range of the typical 110 required to win the Preakness. If he improves slightly - the gamble is he will - Rock Hard Ten can score an upset.

Other than low odds, what's not to like about Smarty Jones? The unbeaten Derby winner runs fast, and his versatility allows him to make his own trip under any pace scenario. Yet questions remain. Bred for mud, Smarty Jones possibly benefited from wet surfaces his last two starts when he inhaled distance-challenged Lion Heart and Purge. Smarty Jones faced no serious late threat in either of his last two, but on a fast Pimlico track he will be challenged early, middle, and late. From a betting perspective, Smarty Jones offers limited value.

Lion Heart may want nothing beyond 1 1/16 miles, but he will set the pace before tiring. Perhaps the best chance for Lion Heart would be open up early, run his pace foes ragged, then stagger home. Of course, that daring strategy requires courage with a horse whose best weapon is his speed. He can only win the Preakness by winning it early, because he certainly won't win it late. He lacks a finishing kick.

The recommended wagering strategy is a trifecta that insists either Smarty Jones or Lion Heart runs out. Borrego flopped in mud, but may rebound on a fast track. Eddington exits the low-rated and counterproductive Wood. He is tough to support on class or speed, which is not to say he cannot finish in the money. Imperialism may have been flattered by mud in the Derby. He will finish. Sir Shackleton will press, but two turns is something new. The Cliff's Edge had a setback. The others probably aren't good enough.