05/14/2002 11:00PM

Last-out top Beyer vulnerable in Preakness

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LAS VEGAS - The Preakness has its distinctive place in the historic Triple Crown series. It's more than just the tail on the Kentucky Derby dog, especially in the realm of the Beyer Speed Figures.

In fact, it's the Preakness that has produced the highest winning Beyer figure in any recent Triple Crown race - a 118 by Silver Charm in 1997. And he defeated a superb field that included Captain Bodgit, Free House, and Touch Gold - undoubtedly the most talented group of 3-year-olds in the 1990's.

The Preakness has also produced the lowest winning Beyer figure in recent Triple Crown race history, a 98 by Prairie Bayou in 1993, the only sub-100 Beyer in the last decade.

The Preakness also has produced the biggest Beyer turnaround in recent Triple Crown history - Louis Quatorze's jump up from a dismal 77 in the Kentucky Derby to a winning, wire-to-wire 112 in the Preakness in 1996.

This transformation of Louis Quatorze from Derby disaster to Preakness killer underscores the key to the second leg of the Triple Crown: 15 out of the last 16 Preakness winners have made their previous start in the Kentucky Derby. New faces generally have not fared well. Only Red Bullet in 2000 won the Preakness without having raced in the Derby. In 2001, for example, the five Derby runners in the Preakness accounted for the first four finishers.

A similar pattern holds for every other year in the past decade, peaking in 1996 when, in a field of 12, the seven Derby runners finished first through seventh.

And it is this domination of the Preakness by Derby starters that might help explain one very dramatic difference between the two races. In the Derby, the top last-out Beyer figures have won consistently (5 out of the past 11 Derbies) and at some enormous prices ($35.60, $10, $64.60, $6.60, and $43). If you had bet $2 to win on every top Beyer figure (or figures) in the past 11 Derbies, this would be your bottom line:

Amount wagered:$30

Amount cashed:$159.80

Total profit:$129.80

But in the Preakness the results have been quite different:

Amount wagered:$26

Amount cashed:$27

Total profit:$1

Only Charismatic and Silver Charm won the Preakness as co-top Beyers. Logically, the Derby winner is most often the horse who enters the Preakness with the highest last Beyer figure. In fact, in the past ten years that has been the case eight times (including Cavonnier in 1996, substituting for Grindstone, who never raced again after his Derby victory). While these top Beyers have only won twice in that span, they have generally performed well, with two winners, four seconds, and three thirds out of 13 starters.

But if you examine what happens to the Beyer figures of these Derby winners, the picture is somewhat less encouraging. Only two Derby winners improved their Beyers in the Preakness - Real Quiet by four points and Silver Charm by three points, both of whom were trained by War Emblem's trainer, Bob Baffert, by the way. In contrast, four Derby winners declined by similar numbers, and four others declined by ten points or more.

It's easy to understand why most Derby winners would regress in the Preakness. After all, you might expect that a big performance in such a demanding race as the Derby would take something out of a horse. But the overall statistics for all 58 Derby runners who made it to the Preakness show how balanced and reliable a guide the Derby has been for Preakness handicappers:

* Ten Derby runners improved their Beyers by one to five points in the Preakness. Ten declined by the same amount.

* Five Derby runners improved by six to ten points. Four declined by the same amount.

* Five Derby runners improved by 11 to 20 points in the Preakness. Seven declined by the same amount.

* Six runners improved by 21 or more points. Eleven declined by the same amount.

Thirty-two decliners, twenty-six improvers. A slight edge to Derby wear and tear, but statistically insignificant. Unlike the Derby, the Preakness is much more handicapper-friendly, much more like your typical, everyday handicapping challenge. Much more logical and predictable.

But this year there are only four Derby runners entered in the Preakness, and the field is unusually crowded. If the projected 13 entrants all start, this will be the smallest percentage of Derby participants in the last decade of Preakness runnings. It will be a stern test for one of handicapping's most reliable angles. But I would still be reluctant to back one of those new faces at Pimlico on Saturday. Just as I would be reluctant to back the top figure.