05/08/2004 12:00AM

Decision time draws near


ELMONT, N.Y. - Preparations for the 129th Preakness Stakes continued Saturday at six different locations, none being Pimlico, the site of the race itself. None of the expected starters for the second leg of the Triple Crown was due to arrive until Monday, when The Cliff's Edge was scheduled to ship in from Churchill Downs.

The number of definite runners for this Saturday's 1 3/16-mile Preakness increased to nine with word from trainer Kristin Mulhall that Imperialism, the third-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby, will run. He will join a cast that already consists of Smarty Jones, Lion Heart, The Cliff's Edge, Borrego, Eddington, Rock Hard Ten, Little Matth Man, and Water Cannon. There are still a handful horses whose connections are considering the race. Entries will be drawn on Wednesday at the ESPN Zone in downtown Baltimore. The Preakness is limited to 14 starters.

The majority of horses will ship to Baltimore on Wednesday. That includes Kentucky Derby winner Smarty Jones, who on Saturday morning galloped at Philadelphia Park before an extraordinarily large crowd allowed to watch the exercise. Meanwhile, two of his challengers - Eddington and Water Cannon - put in workouts in the much more subdued atmospheres of Belmont Park and Bowie, respectively.

Eddington, excluded from the Kentucky Derby because of a lack of sufficient graded stakes earnings, worked a solid five furlongs in 1:00.14 over Belmont's main track. For the second straight week, jockey Aaron Gryder was aboard for the workout. Last week, Eddington worked in blinkers and went six furlongs in 1:12.66. This week, Eddington worked without blinkers. He shaded 24 seconds for his final quarter.

"He was even more off the bridle today," said Gryder, whose mount went the first eighth of a mile in 12.90 seconds. "He was just as responsive when I asked him to pick it up down the stretch. Last week, I worked him in blinkers, this week I didn't. Maybe that was the difference, or maybe he's settling that good. Just walking back to the wire and jogging back to the quarter pole took me a lot longer because, he wanted to stop and observe everything."

Trainer Mark Hennig said he plans to open up Eddington's blinkers a little bit in the Preakness. In his last start, Eddington finished third in the Wood Memorial, beaten a nose for second by Master David.

"I felt like the way that Master David kind of snuck up on the rail there it seemed like he let him get a good neck in front of him, maybe a half-length before he started running again at him," Hennig said. "I thought maybe I'd trim them back a little bit, give him a little more field of vision."

Hennig plans to ship Eddington to Pimlico on Wednesday following training hours. Jerry Bailey, a two-time Preakness winner, will ride Eddington. Bailey rode Red Bullet to victory in the 2000 Preakness after that horse skipped the Derby. Only six times in the last 50 years has a non-starter in the Kentucky Derby won the Preakness.

Imperialism joins field

Imperialism was confirmed as a Preakness starter on Saturday by trainer Kristin Mulhall.

Imperialism galloped 1 1/8 miles and went to the starting gate at Hollywood Park, the third consecutive day he has been schooled at the gate.

"I think we're going," Mulhall said.

Following the loss to Smarty Jones, Imperialism returned to Mulhall's base at Hollywood Park on Wednesday. At the time, Mulhall said she wanted to wait and see how Imperialism trained before deciding on whether to ship to the Preakness.

She emphasized on Saturday that she has been pleased with his recent training.

"I wanted to be confident that he was on his toes," she said.

Mulhall said Imperialism was scheduled to have a three-furlong workout on Monday at Hollywood Park and ship to Baltimore on Tuesday or Wednesday. Mulhall said Imperialism will continue to school at the gate at Hollywood Park before traveling.

Owned by Steve Taub, Imperialism has won 5 of 16 starts and $522,605.

In the Kentucky Derby, Imperialism rallied through traffic and was closing well through the stretch. He finished six lengths behind Smarty Jones and was 3 1/4 lengths behind runner-up Lion Heart.

Imperialism will be ridden by Kent Desormeaux, who had the mount in the Derby.

Public gallop for Smarty Jones

At Philadelphia Park, a crowd of several thousand fans turned out Saturday morning to watch Smarty Jones aggressively gallop 1 1/2 miles with exercise rider Pete Van Trump.

The Derby winner walked past the winner's circle following his gallop, accompanied by trainer John Servis, who was astride his pony and was wearing a Philadelphia Flyers jersey that said, "Servis 04."

Local hope Water Cannon Breezes

At Bowie, the vastly improved Water Cannon worked five furlongs in 1:00.80, the best time among 19 at the distance.

Water Cannon has won five straight races, including the April 17 Federico Tesio Stakes, since adding blinkers for a victory against maidens on Dec. 28. But in keeping with custom, he did not work in blinkers on Saturday.

"He probably would do more if he had them," said his trainer, Linda Albert. "He doesn't need them for a work."

Exercise rider Gilberto Delgado was aboard for the work. He jogged Water Cannon the wrong way to just past the finish line. Once turned around, Water Cannon galloped eagerly to the 5 1/2-furlong pole, where Water Cannon started rolling. He was at full speed by the time he reached the five-furlong pole.

Albert was concerned about the condition of the track because of thunderstorms that hit the area Friday night. Delgado said the surface was sticky, but otherwise had a good bottom. "The track's tight. It can take a lot of water," Albert said.

Water Cannon will be a longshot in the race, but Albert thinks he deserves the chance to try the nation's elite 3-year-olds, including Smarty Jones.

"He's ready to take on the challenge, to see if he can do this," Albert said. "He's really coming along strongly. I think he can go up another notch, but he's going to need to."

Albert was enjoying the morning. She brought along a Super Soaker, in honor of Water Cannon, while being interviewed by Pimlico's in-house television crew.

Ryan Fogelsonger rides Water Cannon in the Preakness.

Sir Shackleton now a possible starter

Trainer Nick Zito said Saturday that Sir Shackleton, winner of the Derby Trial, could run in the Preakness. Zito planned to work Sir Shackleton at Churchill Downs on Sunday and said the colt would most likely ship to Baltimore on Monday along with The Cliff's Edge.

Zito said owner Tracy Farmer and farm manager Lincoln Collins would wait a few days before making a final decision on Sir Shackleton. Rafael Bejarano would ride Sir Shackleton if he runs, Zito said.

Works planned for Kentucky contingent

In Kentucky, where four Preakness hopefuls have been training, several serious works are scheduled before the horses are sent to Pimlico. All four had routine gallops Saturday.

The Cliff's Edge, fifth in the Derby, was scheduled to work Sunday at Churchill Downs in Louisville before being flown Monday on a Tex Sutton charter flight.

Also at Churchill, Rock Hard Ten was scheduled to work Monday or Tuesday, and Borrego, 10th in the Derby, will work Tuesday before both are flown Wednesday to Baltimore. Rock Hard Ten, excluded from the Derby for lack of graded-stakes earnings, already had a strong seven-furlong here last week.

Lion Heart, the speedy Patrick Biancone-trained colt who has been at Keeneland since finishing second to Smarty Jones in the Derby, also is scheduled to be flown Wednesday to Baltimore. Biancone had not fully committed to putting Lion Heart through a serious blowout before shipping.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen, Marty McGee, and Jay Privman