05/18/2006 12:00AM

Certain improvement's a pretty good angle

Unlike in the Derby, Sweetnorthernsaint should get to show his best in the Preakness.

NEW YORK - Barbaro is the most likely winner of the 131st Preakness Stakes. He is obviously a very good horse, potentially even more than that. His 6 1/2-length Kentucky Derby victory margin was the largest in 60 years. He is lightly raced, fresh, and improving. He owns the field's best Beyer Speed Figure. He is tractable, possesses both tactical speed and the stamina to finish strongly, and in Edgar Prado has a top rider in peak form who practically owned Pimlico when he rode there.

He's a formidable favorite and not a horse you want to spend a lot of time and money trying to beat, but there are two plausible Preakness alternatives at more attractive prices: Sweetnorthernsaint and Brother Derek, who had tough trips in the Kentucky Derby and will be 4-1 or so Saturday, whereas Barbaro figures to be even-money or less. They are close together in ability and closer to Barbaro than their margins of defeat on Derby Day would suggest.

There are no holes to pick in Barbaro's current form or undefeated record, and it's quite possible that none of his 19 rivals could have gotten near him on Derby Day even if they had run their best races. It is clear, however, that neither Brother Derek nor Sweetnorthernsaint had the chance to do that. They came into the race with the two fastest performances of the prep season but fell way off those efforts after enduring plenty of bad luck. A rebound to their top efforts, which against the clock were only a length or two off Barbaro's Derby performance, could make this race much closer than the repeat runaway most people seem to expect.

In the Derby, Brother Derek was wide on the first turn after breaking from post 18, shuffled back down the backstretch, even wider on the second turn, and showed a new dimension rallying past most of the field while finishing evenly with the one-run closers.

Sweetnorthernsaint finished 3 1/2 lengths behind Brother Derek but had an even worse trip that left him finished in upper stretch and not pushed thereafter. The official chart footnote of his journey is a tale of woe: "Sweetnorthernsaint, steadied when bumped at the start by A. P. Warrior and forced out by Private Vow, was steadied again under the wire the first time in tight quarters, worked his way between foes around the first turn, angled inside on the backstretch, boldly came through close quarters along the rail at the five-sixteenths pole, but faltered when straightened for the drive."

He was in trouble almost every step of the way, never caught a breather, made a sensational middle move, and had every right to chuck it through the stretch. With a cleaner trip in a smaller field and a post 7 draw that should allow him to stalk the two favorites, he is eligible to run a much stronger race. Whether it's good enough to beat Barbaro remains to be seen, but at 4-1 he's worth a shot.

The three favorites are the only horses coming out of the Derby. They face six new shooters whose chances would appear to range from ambitious to hopeless even if you didn't know that a Derby starter has won the Preakness in 21 of the last 22 years. Bernardini looks like the best of them on paper, coming off a Withers romp in just his third career start, but he is an underlay at 8-1 trying two turns and Grade 1 company for the first time. Also, the Withers was a four-horse race with a subpar field in which the 3-5 favorite, Luxembourg, tired badly after six furlongs.

If you're looking for a parimutuel longshot to complete a trifecta or superfecta under the deserving favorites, a better idea might be Greeley's Legacy at 20-1 or even Platinum Couple at 50-1. They at least should be gaining some ground late while the shorter-priced Bernardini, Like Now, and Diabolical could be reeling after contesting the early fractions and then being confronted by the pace-stalking favorites.

So let's call it Sweetnorthernsaint, Barbaro, Brother Derek, and Platinum Couple in that order. If Barbaro's really even-money, he's arguably a reasonable bet, but he could well be a tick or two lower by post time. Maybe he should be after that superb Derby performance, but he's the only one of the three Derby returnees who ran his best race that day. Win or lose, it will be interesting to see what happens if Sweetnorthernsaint and Brother Derek also get to showcase their true ability this time.