05/12/2006 12:00AM

Barbaro a reasonable bet-against


LEXINGTON, Ky. - After Barbaro's dominant 6 1/2-length triumph in the Kentucky Derby, it is only natural for horse racing fans to hope that he will be the next Triple Crown winner. In fact, judging by some of the stories I have read, and by some of the talk I have heard, many observers have already conceded the Preakness and the Belmont to Barbaro.

If you truly believe that Barbaro is all but a slam-dunk in the Preakness, then go ahead and key him in the top slot in the exotics and try to add betting value with the horses you link him with in those bets. But before you commit to that strategy, you have a few issues to ponder.

First, trainer Michael Matz made a big point of bucking Kentucky Derby history when he planned Barbaro's schedule with a five-week gap between the Florida Derby and the Kentucky Derby. That was a provocative, risky move on his part. The fact that he insisted on defying conventional wisdom in such an important race suggests that Matz feels very strongly that Barbaro needs his races well spaced in order to deliver a top performance. That idea is confirmed by the spacing of Barbaro's races throughout his brief career, in which he has had gaps of six, six, five, eight, and five weeks between starts.

Clearly, Matz knew best when he gave Barbaro the extra rest, then watched him cruise to victory in the Kentucky Derby. But that begs a very important question that some handicappers are overlooking: What happens when Matz is no longer able to control the spacing of Barbaro's races? If Matz wants to win the Triple Crown, he must adhere to a schedule dictated by tradition. Barbaro must prove that he can run another big race in the Preakness following a short two-week break.

Remember also that Barbaro's reputation as a super-horse on the dirt is based on only one performance. Before his big Kentucky Derby win, Barbaro's dirt form was less spectacular. He was all out to hold off 25-1 longshot Great Point by only three-quarters of a length in the Holy Bull in his first main-track race. It should be noted that Great Point suffered through traffic trouble, and was flying late. If Great Point had lucked into a better trip, Barbaro might have lost that race. For the record, Great Point is still eligible for a second-level allowance race, and he required assistance from the stewards when he was moved up to first on a disqualification in his initial allowance win.

Barbaro was then all out to defeat Sharp Humor by only a half-length in the Florida Derby. Although Barbaro deserves credit for winning those two races, neither of them suggest that he is the second coming of Secretariat.

Even if you are inclined to believe that Barbaro can overcome the short recovery period following the Derby, and that he is as good as his Kentucky Derby win indicates, he is still eligible to bounce following his career-best performance. If you believe that is unlikely, you don't have to look back very far to find recent examples. Favored Sweetnorthernsaint ran his career-best race when he earned a 109 Beyer In the Illinois Derby, then regressed by 17 Beyer points in the Kentucky Derby. Brother Derek tied his career-best 108 Beyer in the Santa Anita Derby, then lost 11 points in Louisville.

Regardless of how much you like Barbaro, you should be willing to admit that he is not likely to win the Preakness if he follows the same pattern as Sweetnorthernsaint and Brother Derek and regresses by 11 or more Beyer points. Although his resume is the strongest coming into the Preakness, at odds that might be lower than even money, Barbaro is not the betting value.