05/13/2004 12:00AM

Good spot to swing for home run

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NEW YORK - In most years, the Kentucky Derby answers most of the questions that everyone had going into the race: Which were the really key prep races? Which colts can truly handle the classic distances and which ones are really milers? Do one or two of the Derby class simply tower over their contemporaries?

This year, however, it is debatable whether any of those questions got a legitimate answer amid the slop at Churchill Downs. If you think they did, and Smarty Jones is simply in a league of his own with Lion Heart clearly next best, then run to the windows and bet out on a rerun of the Derby. You will get something like $4.60 to win and a $15 exacta this time instead of the Derby payoffs of $10.20 and $65.20, but those are still decent prices if you think it's really that easy.

The alternative approach is to say that the Derby proved little except that Smarty Jones is obviously a talented racehorse, and that mud-loving front-runners can dominate any race run on a wet track, whether it's the second Thursday in February at Aqueduct or the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs. If that's your take, the Preakness may offer a chance to apply contrarian thinking and chase fatter payoffs.

Of the 11 Preakness entrants, four seem impossibly overmatched: Little Matth Man, Sir Shackleton, Song of the Sword, and Water Cannon have done nothing to suggest they can win this race. That leaves six or seven (depending on whether The Cliff's Edge runs) to consider, all of them surrounded by question marks.

It's neither unpatriotic nor disrespectful to question Smarty Jones at a short price. He's undefeated and nifty and an admirable racehorse, but he has yet to win a Grade 1 race on a dry track or run a particularly fast race against the clock. He's the first undefeated Derby winner since Seattle Slew, but Seattle Slew's first seven victories included the Champagne, Flamingo, and Wood and a seven-furlong track record at Hialeah.

Lion Heart has speed and tenacity but he hasn't fought back with quite enough to win any of his three starts this year. He has blown daylight leads and been nailed by Imperialism, The Cliff's Edge, and Smarty Jones, and may well be a top-class miler who was aided by a soft trip and sloppy footing in Louisville. At 3-1, he seems like an underlay to win the race.

Imperialism is a very tough read. He's honest and seasoned and he was the only closer who did anything down the stretch at Churchill Downs after a bumpy trip, but after 16 career starts he doesn't seem to have much upside for improvement. It's also possible that the slop moved him up at Churchill. Still, there's something to be said for consistency and reliability, and he will be passing horses late.

Rock Hard Ten, a magnificent physical specimen with boundless potential, is the most intriguing of the newcomers. This year's Santa Anita Derby may not have attracted a vintage field, but Rock Hard Ten ran an extraordinary race to lose a photo in just his third career start. The downside is that he hasn't run since, but the raw talent is there.

Eddington's true quality remains uncertain after six starts. Is he ready to put it all together or is he a notch below the best? He lost the Wood Memorial by only half a length but it's unclear how good that race was. Tapit and Master David came back to do nothing in the Derby, but neither ran his race in the slop.

Borrego is the most plausible of the double-digit longshots. His Derby is a complete throwout and he was gradually closing in on Smarty Jones in the Arkansas Derby in his previous start. If the pace is more testing and some of the colts who finished in front of him in Louisville don't really want to go this far, he could get at least a piece of the purse at a big price.

Before his foot problems emerged Wednesday, The Cliff's Edge struck me as the most likely Derby rebounder and a likely overlay in this field. His Blue Grass may have been the best of the final round of Derby preps, he lost two shoes during the Derby, and still ran well in spots. Now he's a likely scratch and a shaky proposition if he runs. I will still use him on my tickets if he starts, but without the same enthusiasm.

If he's out, I will key the best of the new shooters, Rock Hard Ten and Eddington, adding Borrego, Imperialism, and Smarty Jones in the exotics and maybe a smidge of Song of the Sword underneath. If it's Smarty Jones and Lion Heart all over again, I will happily tear up my tickets after a good gamble. Not that a chalky outcome means that contrarians need give up the ship of stubbornness: Regardless of what happens in the Preakness, we still get to agonize over what to do with Birdstone, Castledale, Master David, Read the Footnotes, and Tapit in the Belmont three weeks later.