05/17/2010 12:00AM

Just one viable alternative to Preakness favorite


NEW YORK - Lookin At Lucky and Super Saver both figured to run the best races of their careers in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago. Both were making only their third starts of the year off winter freshenings and had been trained more with an eye to peaking on Derby Day than in necessarily winning their preps.

Super Saver delivered, improving a notch while also enjoying a perfect trip. Lookin At Lucky never had a chance, enduring a nightmare of a journey and finishing sixth. Super Saver deserves to be favored in the rematch between the two Derby favorites in the 135th Preakness, but I will take Lookin At Lucky to post a mild upset.

There was more than enough rain and traffic to muddy this year's Derby result on both the winning and losing sides. Reasonable arguments can be made either way - that the best horse won, or that the stars lined up for the winner of a chaotic race.

The case for Super Saver begins with the reasonable possibility that he's simply better than his Preakness opponents, all of whom would have to take a step forward just to match the Derby winner's effort. While Super Saver didn't have a straw in his path under a canny ride from Calvin Borel, he's also a colt who makes his own luck through tactical speed and a newfound tractability. Those are strong assets in a Preakness that appears to lack the usual brigade of hopeless quitters. He will be close early if the fractions are tepid, and is likely to get first run on his principal opponents.

The opposing argument is that he was the last man standing in a slow and roughly run race. Ice Box, who is awaiting the Belmont, appeared to have more trouble than his 2 1/2-length margin of defeat. Lookin At Lucky, banged around repeatedly, actually made a sensational middle move through most of the field before understandably flattening out late. Well-backed contenders such as Sidney's Candy and Awesome Act were beaten dozens of lengths and clearly fired nothing close to their best shots.

If the Preakness were the last leg of a bazillion-dollar pick-something, and for some reason I could only use two horses, I would take Lookin At Lucky and Super Saver in a heartbeat. If I could have two little backups, they would be to a couple of the new shooters in the race - Caracortado and Yawanna Twist - rather than to the three other horses emerging from the Derby. Paddy O'Prado had no excuses when a tiring third in the Derby, while Dublin (seventh) and Jackson Bend (12th) have been steadily raced to a combined 11 straight losses without improving on their 2-year-old form.

It's not an inspiring group of newcomers to the second leg of the 2010 Triple Crown: All seven of them lost their last start, leaving Super Saver as the only Preakness entrant who won last time out. Caracortado, however, had excuses in the Santa Anita Derby and is also eligible to move forward returning to dirt for the first time since his career debut.

Yawanna Twist may at first appear hopeless after being unable to outfinish Awesome Act and American Lion in his last two starts, but merits a look at 30-1 for having the fewest starts - just four in a career that began Dec. 26 - and perhaps the most upside.

For those investing in trifectas and superfectas, the betting value in this Derby may be in finelining the contenders for minor awards rather than in swinging for the fences by opposing the two favorites. Two horses who may be overbet are Dublin and Schoolyard Dreams, solely for their proximity to Super Saver in his first two starts of the year. (Schoolyard Dreams was a half-length in front of him when they ran second and third in the Tampa Bay Derby, and Dublin was only a neck behind him when they ran two-three in the Arkansas Derby.) The significance of those close finishes may be overvalued, however, if Super Saver indeed took a big step forward on Derby Day.

How big a step? That's the most interesting question of the Preakness, and the answer will leave us with either a candidate to win the Triple Crown or another year without one.