05/18/2006 12:00AM

An ideal time to roll a seven

Barbaro, Peter Brette up, works out Thursday at Fair Hill in Maryland, a setting his trainer, Michael Matz, sees as an advantage.

BALTIMORE - He has won on turf. He has won on dirt. He has won on fast tracks. He can even walk on water, with a victory on a sloppy track. There is seemingly nothing Barbaro cannot do. It's so simple, even a child gets it.

"What do you like about Barbaro?" Alex Matz, the 9-year-old son of trainer Michael Matz, was asked.

"He wins all his races," Alex replied.

"You can't argue with that," his father said.

Barbaro has won all six of his starts, including the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago. On Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, Barbaro will try to win the $1 million , the second leg of the Triple Crown, and move on to the June 10 Belmont Stakes with a chance to become the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978.

Bettors are expected to believe the Preakness will be mere child's play for Barbaro. So impressive was Barbaro's 6 1/2-length victory in the Derby that only two of the 19 horses who faced him that day will try again in the Preakness. There are six new shooters, making a field of nine. Barbaro is the even-money favorite on the morning line set by Pimlico's Frank Carulli, and he is 4-5 on the line of Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper.

A crowd of more than 100,000 is expected to stuff itself into Pimlico for the 131st running of the Preakness. They might have to dodge a few raindrops. The Weather Channel forecast for Saturday calls for a high temperature of 71 degrees, and a 20 percent chance of rain.

The Preakness - at 1 3/16 miles the shortest of the Triple Crown races - is the 12th race on a 13-race card that begins at 10:30 a.m Eastern. Post time for the Preakness is 6:15 p.m. The race will be shown live by NBC Sports in a 90-minute telecast beginning at 5 p.m.

Barbaro won the Derby off a five-week layoff, and he had just one start in the previous 13 weeks. Matz said he designed that schedule in order to have Barbaro fresh for the demands of running three times in five weeks through the Triple Crown. Those trying to beat Barbaro are likely hoping that Barbaro regresses off the Derby. Handicappers call it bouncing.

Might Barbaro bounce?

"He certainly might," Matz said. Long pause. "But I wouldn't want to bet on it."

Barbaro felt so well on Thursday morning that Matz let him blow out a quarter-mile at the Fair Hill training center where he is based. He was given a workout time of 24.20 seconds.

Training at tranquil Fair Hill, Matz said, is an advantage.

"You can see how peaceful it is here," Matz said. "Three days after the Kentucky Derby, he was out in a paddock, eating grass, which should make his recovery that much quicker."

Barbaro ended up in post 6 in the Preakness, with the two other horses exiting the Derby - Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint - on either side of him.

"This is going to be difficult. You never know how a 3-year-old is going to do coming off a two-week layoff," Matz said. "But they're in the same boat we're in. I don't think anybody knows, and if they say they do, they're lying."

Brother Derek finished in a dead heat for fourth in the Derby after racing wide the whole way. His early speed was compromised by his poor post and wide trip. He should have better options this time.

"He ran super in the Derby," said Dan Hendricks, who trains Brother Derek. "In one sense, it was one of his best races. He took back, got dirt in his face, was wide, and lost a shoe. You could say he could have been second.

"With the smaller field, he should be able to show what he can do. It should be a true-run race. I'm just hoping for a clean trip. And if I can't beat Barbaro, I hope he wins the Triple Crown by many lengths. But I think this is going to be a totally different run race. I hope it's a dogfight."

Brother Derek visited the Pimlico track for the first time on Thursday morning after arriving on Wednesday afternoon. He made a positive impression by eagerly galloping about 1 1/4 miles after a half-mile jog.

Sweetnorthernsaint also had a rough trip in the Derby. Normally a horse who races on or near the lead, Sweetnorthernsaint was bounced around between Private Vow and A. P. Warrior at the start, and was shuffled back to 18th an eighth of a mile into the race. He knifed through the field and advanced to fourth by the top of the stretch, but then tired.

"I don't think he got the best shake," said Mike Trombetta, the trainer of Sweetnorthernsaint. "He did the best he could. He was compromised at the start, and that was costly."

An intriguing joust could unfold the first part of the race between Sweetnorthernsaint and Barbaro, because Kent Desormeaux, who is riding Sweetnorthernsaint, might find his best chance is to try and keep Barbaro boxed in while keeping Sweetnorthernsaint outside and in the clear.

"We've all got to try to do our best to get past him," Trombetta said of Barbaro. "The riders know who the target is, so they might ride differently."

Of the six newcomers to the Triple Crown, the best might be the horse with the least experience. Bernardini has raced just three times, but he comes off a sharp victory in the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct.

"He's stepping up to the major leagues, especially the way Barbaro ran," said Tom Albertrani, the trainer of Bernardini. "He ran an incredible race. We're going to have our work cut out, but I still believe the horse has enough talent and certainly deserves a chance in there."

Like Now was second in the Lexington Stakes in his last start after capturing the Gotham. He has finished first or second in six of his last seven races.

Greeley's Legacy wrapped fourth-place finishes in the Lexington and the Gotham around a seventh-place finish in the Wood Memorial.

Diabolical won a first-level allowance at Delaware in his last start, but the three horses he beat were so inferior that he was sent off at 1-20. His only other victory came last July going 5 1/2 furlongs in his debut.

Hemingway's Key was eighth in the Lexington. He has run poorly in four straight races, the last two with blinkers. He will remove blinkers for the Preakness.

Platinum Couple was fifth in the Wood Memorial. His only two victories came against New York-breds.

This Preakness has plenty of talent, quite a bit of filler, a whole lot of intrigue regarding strategy, and - potentially - one very special horse, who dominated a Derby in which two of his primary rivals had difficult trips.

"Hopefully it'll be a cleaner-run race," Matz said, "and may the best horse win."

- additional reporting by David Grening