05/12/2004 11:00PM

He's out - no, he's in


BALTIMORE - Kristin Mulhall doesn't watch a lot of basketball, but she's become familiar with the full-court press.

The trainer of Imperialism, who finished third in the Kentucky Derby, initially thought it best to give the colt a freshening, in order to point for races like Hollywood Park's Swaps Stakes and Monmouth's Haskell Invitational this summer. So, she decided to send Imperialism back to her base at Hollywood Park.

Then both jockey Kent Desormeaux and owner Steve Taub began lobbying Mulhall to continue on the Triple Crown trail with Imperialism. Desormeaux was convinced Imperialism could have finished closer in the Derby with a better trip, and took the blame. Taub, who has been courting the media throughout the Triple Crown, began pushing to run, too.

So, despite her initial misgivings, Mulhall has brought Imperialism here for Saturday's 129th Preakness Stakes.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime deal," she said. "Originally I was planning to freshen him up. As long as I can freshen him up at some point."

It is unusual for a colt who runs in the Derby to head back to the West Coast, then turn around and fly cross-country again for the Preakness. Imperialism went home for two reasons. First, Mulhall's original plan was for another colt, Cheiron, to represent the barn in the Preakness.

But Mulhall said that Cheiron, the winner of the Snow Chief Stakes last month at Hollywood Park, was worn out after that race, so the Preakness was abandoned.

"That race took quite a bit out of him," she said. "He was laying down, dull. We decided that with all the shipping, it was better to stay in California. He'll point for the Affirmed and the Swaps."

The second reason Imperialism went home is because Mulhall gets on the colt every morning for his gallops and workouts. She did not want to leave him in Kentucky when she returned to California after the Derby to supervise her remaining runners. She also wanted to take him to the gate for schooling sessions.

All the traveling for Imperialism would seem to be a concern, but Mulhall said it was not.

"He's a great shipper," she said. "He got back great, and we did a lot of schooling with him. He got here great. He's basically like shipping a pony across the country."

Imperialism's trip to Baltimore might have been easier than his trip in the Derby. He was stuck behind horses such as Song of the Sword down the backstretch, and had to await room for more than a furlong. At that point, The Cliff's Edge moved past him. When Imperialism finally got clear midway around the far turn, Desormeaux angled him widest of all, and Imperialism closed furiously, passing The Cliff's Edge but failing to catch Smarty Jones and Lion Heart.

"He got in a lot of trouble, and he still came on," Mulhall said. "He really was about the only horse closing. He got clipped the first time under the wire by The Cliff's Edge. He had a pretty rough trip. He was stuck behind a tiring horse on the backstretch, when Song of the Sword stopped. He lost four or five lengths there.

"He totally swung out wide turning for home," she said. "Kent said, 'Screw this, I'm going.' He went five or six wide, but once he got out in the open, he came flying."

Mulhall said Desormeaux desperately wants to make amends in the Preakness. Desormeaux won the Preakness in 1998 with Real Quiet, and Pimlico is where Desormeaux first rose to prominence, dominating the local colony here in the late 1980's.

"He knows this horse better than anyone else, and he knows this track better than anyone else," Mulhall said. "He has a lot of confidence in the horse. He loves the horse. He blamed himself for what happened in the Derby. We were thrilled to death with third, but Kent felt he could have been a lot closer. He thought he gave him a lot to do."

Imperialism has blossomed under Mulhall's care. Since arriving in her barn after being purchased privately in Florida, he has captured the San Vicente Stakes and San Rafael Stakes at Santa Anita, crossed the wire third in the Santa Anita Derby before being placed second on a disqualification, and finished third in the Derby.

Mulhall has made all the right moves, relying on her instincts are a horsewoman. This will be the first time since acquiring Imperialism that she hasn't acted as the point guard.