05/11/2004 11:00PM

Attempting the old Preakness rebound

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BALTIMORE - They resurface two weeks later, their Derby dreams shattered and their egos bruised - but ready and willing to try again.

They might as well.

Eight times in the last 20 years, the winner of the Preakness has been a horse who finished fourth or worse two weeks earlier in the Kentucky Derby. As discouraging as getting dusted in the Derby might be, owners and trainers frequently uncover plausible reasons to keep those also-rans on the Triple Crown trail, and as some memorable runnings of the Preakness attest, the decision to plow ahead is sometimes well founded.

Three starters in the 129th Preakness at Pimlico were soundly beaten in the May 1 Derby: The Cliff's Edge ran fifth, Borrego was 10th, and Song of the Sword finished 11th, each far behind three horses they will meet again in the Preakness - Smarty Jones, Lion Heart, and Imperialism.

Invariably, whenever a Derby also-ran wheels back in the Preakness, the reason cited has something to do with the horse not having a chance to do his best in Louisville.

"When you lose two shoes, you're really up against it," said trainer Nick Zito, referring to his colt, The Cliff's Edge, who lost both front shoes during the Derby. "It just wasn't fair to the horse."

Zito knows a little something about how a horse can dramatically reverse his Derby form in the Preakness. He trained Louis Quatorze, who finished 16th in the 1996 Derby and then won the Preakness.

"That's the kind of thing we're looking at Saturday," said Zito.

Louis Quatorze is perhaps the most extreme example of how quickly things can change in the two weeks between the Derby and Preakness, and an example of just how forgiving - and savvy - horseplayers can be. Of the eight Derby also-rans who won the Preakness in the last 20 years, none was sent away higher than 9-1 in the Preakness, and even two of them, Pine Bluff (1992) and Point Given (2001), were favored.

Louis Quatorze was only 8-1 in the Preakness, which probably had something to do with the Derby winner, Grindstone, and Derby favorite, Unbridled's Song, dropping out. But perhaps as importantly, Zito strongly believed that Louis Quatorze, who had finished fourth in the Florida Derby and second in the Blue Grass Stakes, was far better than his Derby effort.

D. Wayne Lukas, a five-time winner of the Preakness, said there are legitimate reasons for running a horse back following a subpar Derby. Two of the Lukas Preakness winners, Tank's Prospect (1985) and Tabasco Cat (1994), never threatened in the Derby, finishing seventh and sixth, respectively.

With the Derby having as many as 20 horses, said Lukas, "sometimes your horse just doesn't get a clean run with all that traffic.

"Tabasco Cat had a horse act up next to him in the gate, and when they kicked it, he wasn't ready. In hindsight, he probably was good enough to win the Derby that year, since he won the Preakness and Belmont, but the way the Derby was run, he never really had a chance."

Lukas said he had been "behind schedule all winter" with Tank's Prospect because of an injury. "And after he had a hard race winning the Arkansas Derby, I might have softened up on him before the Kentucky Derby," he said. "I trained him hard into the Preakness, and he brought his 'A' race that day."

Lukas further reasoned that Derby also-rans sometimes deserve another chance because, he said, "the Derby is such a tough race that it can compromise the winner, and sometimes that opens it up for the horses he beat. Then there's the more relaxed atmosphere over at Pimlico that some horses might take to. They go back to what they've done before all the hoopla at the Derby."

Trainer Beau Greely is hoping some of that reasoning validates entering Borrego, who faded to finish 16 1/4 lengths behind Smarty Jones in the Derby.

"We had such high hopes going in because we thought he'd love a sloppy track," said Greely. "The fact the track was sealed might have had something to do with how he ran, but by the night of the race, he was acting like he hadn't even run. He bounced out so good. He was bucking and kicking and acting like he wanted to do something."

Borrego worked a half-mile in 46 seconds Monday at Churchill Downs, a work that prompted Greely to say, "He's never worked that good before.

"The bottom line is we ran just a length and a half off Smarty Jones in the Arkansas Derby," Greely said. "I don't see how, in just three weeks, he's suddenly another 12 or 14 lengths better than us. I really think our horse is better than what he showed in the Derby."

Jennifer Pedersen, trainer of Song of the Sword, said the off track at Churchill may have partly accounted for her colt's 17 1/2-length defeat. "He came out of it great," she said. "He didn't exert himself much. I hope he finds it in his heart to run this time."

There is little doubt Smarty Jones will be favored on the Pimlico tote board on Saturday. After him, bettors likely will lean toward the respective two-three Derby finishers, Lion Heart and Imperialism, or two more who didn't even run in the Derby, Rock Hard Ten and Eddington.

Yet clearly there is precedent for horses who got little more than hot and dirty at Churchill Downs to suddenly re-emerge on Preakness Day. "Hopefully, that theory can prevail again," said Zito. "I'd love it."