05/15/2006 12:00AM

Heart and head can differ on Barbaro

Sweetnorthersaint (fifth from left) and Brother Derek (far right) got bad trips in the Kentucky Derby. The smaller Preakness field will help them.

NEW YORK - Almost everyone involved in American racing will be rooting for Barbaro in Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico, and that even includes to some small extent the handicappers who pick against him and the horseplayers who bet against him. That might sound like a paradox, but just because the mind may lead you to one conclusion, it doesn't mean that the heart won't secretly wish for another.

It is easy to see why just about everyone is lining up in support of Barbaro. With the way he dominated the Kentucky Derby, should he win the Preakness, Barbaro figures to stand an excellent chance of becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed 28 years ago. And after several near misses in recent years, we are all aware of what a sweep of the Triple Crown would mean for this game. It would put Barbaro, and by association Thoroughbred racing, at the top of every newscast and newspaper in America. It would get people who talk about racing once or maybe twice a year to talk about it more often, and it would arouse the interest of newcomers to the sport. It would be, in a word, tremendous.

And there is more to the enthusiastic support of Barbaro. He is impossible to dislike. Even if you doubted that he could become the first horse in 50 years to win the Kentucky Derby off a layoff of five or more weeks, or didn't believe he could win the Derby having had just one start in 13 weeks - as I did - it was never personal. Barbaro was undefeated, but he was not an undefeated fraud. He was proven at a distance of ground, which is where true champions succeed, and he was proven over three different types of surfaces: a fast track, a sloppy track, and turf. In the Derby, Barbaro faced the best 3-year-olds in America - an unusually deep and strong group - and embarrassed them. Barbaro has an uncommon combination of real speed and real stamina. The 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont looks like it would be right in his wheelhouse. He is trained by a a genuine hero in Michael Matz, who rescued children from a burning airplane. And his jockey, Edgar Prado, is a class act. There is absolutely nothing not to like about Barbaro.

But the Preakness is a different race than the Derby, on a different day, over a different track, in a different state. And even though Barbaro will be heavily favored, he still has to go out and win the race. There are different obstacles this time, the most popular and widely discussed one being the short two-week gap between the Derby and the Preakness. That is an issue for Barbaro who has never had starts closer together than 34 days.

There are others, too, and one of the most intriguing is the projected small field - seven intended starters and several possibles. Many people assume that a small field would work in Barbaro's favor, and it might. But guess what? A small field would also enhance the chances of Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint.

Brother Derek had a wide trip throughout the Derby, and for a colt who was supposed to be effective only on or right with the early pace, he did well to improve his position from 14th to a dead heat for fourth at the finish. Sweetnorthernsaint checked when he was bounced around at the start of the Derby, taking him completely out of his game. Instead of being in early stalking position like Barbaro, which was expected of Sweetnorthernsaint, he was caught behind about a dozen horses in the early stages. Yet, he made a sustained run into sharp contention before understandably running out of gas.

The projected short field for the Preakness strongly suggests that both Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint will have much better trips. And if that happens, it opens up an interesting set of possibilities. What happens if Brother Derek bounds out to a clear lead down the Pimlico backstretch? Will he be iron on the lead as he was when he dominated the Southern California Derby preps? Or will Barbaro be able to run him down? What happens if Sweetnorthernsaint gets the kind of sweet stalking trip he lacked in the Derby - but did get in his very impressive Illinois Derby score? Will Barbaro be able to go past him under those circumstances? Brother Derek earned a 108 Beyer Speed Figure when he won the Santa Anita Derby, and Sweetnorthernsaint earned a 109 in Illinois. Those figures are close to the 111 Barbaro earned in his acclaimed Derby victory, and when you consider all the racing factors that affect Beyer Speed Figures, a difference of 2 or 3 points is splitting hairs.

What we can do without this week is hearing about Pimlico's tighter turns that favor speed horses because that is a bunch of nonsense. The turns at Pimlico are almost identical to the ones at Churchill Downs, and a couple of years ago ESPN did an outstanding job dispelling this myth by superimposing an aerial picture of Pimlico over one of Churchill. To the surprise of only those who rely on misinformation, the turns were virtually identical.

As for the Preakness favoring speed horses, that's baloney, too. Defining speed as horses who were running either first or second, or were within two lengths of the lead in the first call of the result charts, of the last 20 Preaknesses, only six were won by a speed horse, and only one - Louis Quatorze in 1996 - won the Preakness in front-running fashion.