09/27/2005 12:00AM

Hoping to put infamy in past

Scrappy T (front), in his near-disaster with Afleet Alex in the Preakness.

In a lifetime in racing, Robbie Bailes has managed to elude the spotlight - with one notable exception. By a matter of inches, Bailes narrowly avoided becoming a national sports villain as the trainer of the horse who caused the ugliest disaster in Triple Crown history.

That was May 21, in the 130th Preakness at Pimlico, where Scrappy T, trained by Bailes, ducked out and tripped up Afleet Alex in the unforgettable scene that has been replayed dozens, if not hundreds, of times for the sporting public. Afleet Alex, with Jeremy Rose aboard, somehow managed to stay on his feet before proceeding to win in spectacular fashion. Scrappy T finished a clear second, five lengths clear of third-place finisher Giacomo, the Kentucky Derby winner.

In the four-plus months that have ensued, the Preakness scare remains the legacy of Scrappy T. Naturally, this is a label that Bailes would rather not have stick. The best way to start erasing the dubious memories would be for Scrappy T to accomplish something positive, something that would allow racing fans to see him as anything other than The Horse Who Almost Messed It Up For Everybody.

"I know the Preakness is the one thing everybody remembers the horse for," Bailes, 41, said with a hearty laugh earlier this week. "Believe me, I know."

In the Preakness aftermath, Bailes dearly wanted to give Scrappy T and his jockey, Ramon Dominguez, a chance to make amends at the very first opportunity. Bailes said he initially hoped to run Scrappy T back three weeks later in the Belmont Stakes, but Scrappy T started suffering from a somewhat mysterious ailment in his back. Weeks turned to months, and today, the most recent race in Scrappy T's past performances remains the Preakness.

At long last, the wait appears to be over. Scrappy T is scheduled to run Saturday night as one of the favorites in the Grade 2, $500,000 Indiana Derby, which highlights the fall meet at Hoosier Park in the northeastern Indianapolis suburb of Anderson.

"I've finally got the horse where I need him to be," said Bailes. "Everything looked good after the Preakness, but then I got to working with him, and there was something that didn't seem quite right, like something was pinching him. We couldn't figure out what it was for quite a while."

Bailes said the injury finally was pinpointed in a small spot on Scrappy T's back, near his hind end, on his left side. "It wasn't a muscle tear, but more like a really deep bruise, down deep," he said. "For an athlete, sometimes a muscle injury like that can be worse than a break."

Bailes said the only meaningful therapy for such an injury is time.

"We had him do a lot of easy jogging, more than anything else," he said. "You just have to go easy and give it time."

As he looked for the bruise to go away, Bailes held out hope of running Scrappy T in some of the most important summer races for 3-year-olds. After missing the Belmont, Bailes wanted to try the July 16 Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs, in large part because longtime client Marshall Dowell, the owner of Scrappy T, lives in Mechanicsville, Va., a Richmond suburb near Colonial.

But that didn't work. Neither did the Aug. 7 Haskell, nor the Aug. 27 Travers at Saratoga, where Bailes and Scrappy T spent the summer away from their primary base in Maryland. Having returned home several weeks ago to the Bowie Training Center, all is well again, especially after Scrappy T worked five furlongs in a minute flat Sunday.

"He galloped out in 12 and change," said Bailes. "Couldn't have gone much better."

If Afleet Alex had fallen in the Preakness, it seems likely that the Scrappy T people would have been widely viewed as scapegoats, deserved or not. That would have been very unlucky for Bailes and Dominguez, because not many people in racing are as quiet and unassuming they are.

Bailes has a particularly reserved personality. As the son of the late Mert Bailes, a Southern gentleman who left his native Virginia to run a successful stable in Maryland in the 1970's and 1980's, Robbie Bailes has won more than 500 races and nearly $8 million in purses since going out on his own in 1989. He still works for many of the same clients that his father, who died in 1990, had for years.

"Robbie doesn't say a whole lot," said fellow Maryland trainer Gary Capuano, one of Bailes's closest friends. "He's a real easy going guy. He learned a lot from his dad, and after all these years, it's great to see him come up with a good horse. I think the horse is one of the best 3-year-olds out there."

Therein lies the main objective in heading off to Indiana: turning the page on the Preakness while becoming known for something other than television theatrics. Scrappy T was good enough to win the Count Fleet and Withers earlier this year, and if not for the near-disaster with Afleet Alex, the consensus on his Preakness effort might be that it was one of the better races by a 3-year-old this year.

All Bailes wants is a fair chance for Scrappy T to show what he can do.

"It's been a long haul, getting to this point," he said. "All the talk about the Preakness - there's been a lot of that. Now hopefully it's time to get them talking about something else."