05/16/2006 11:00PM

Lost somewhere in the middle

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Afleet Alex charges home to a 4 3/4-length win in the 2005 Preakness, otherwise known as the race that catapulted him to victory in the Belmont.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - There is a realm of psychoanalytic theory that pays special attention to the "middle child" born to a traditional family.

According to the text "Psychology: A Personal Encounter," the middle child is often "plagued by feelings of parental neglect, inadequacy and inferiority." They tend to "crave demonstrations of affection, a sign of insecurity" and can have "difficulty defining a personality. . . that will give them the attention and affection they need."

Welcome to the Preakness Stakes, the middle child of the Triple Crown.

Being flanked on one side by the gaudy, "Hey look at me!" Kentucky Derby and on the other by the solemn, respectable Belmont Stakes, the Preakness often comes off as drowning in a sea of neglect, clothed in Derby hand-me-downs and staged at a tumble-down track, without even a real flower to call its own.

The Preakness is characterized as the race that Derby winners must "get through" in order to deal with the really important issue in New York, giving it all the charm of a road block, or a root canal. Should the Derby winner survive the second child - I mean, jewel - then the Preakness is soon forgotten, as the aura of a potential Triple Crown winner takes command. By the same token, let the Derby winner go belly up in Baltimore, and the Preakness name is suddenly mud. The ultimate party-pooper.

In defense of this lonely soul, this middle child, psychologists point out that he or she might rise to the challenge and strive "to create a clear, strong, unique identity as they are given the freedom to shape their own personalities."

This nails the Preakness to perfection. The race is unique among its Derby and Belmont siblings in one important respect. Of the three races in the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes is the only one that accurately reflects the true personality of American-style horse racing.

The Derby, with its carnival Nascar mentality and shameless cultivation of 20-horse fields, presents a set of circumstances unlike any other major American event. The best horse can lose the Kentucky Derby more often than not, given the riot at the start, the logjams, the bumping, and the unavoidable lost ground. Unless pressed into service in the Mongolian cavalry, horses are never again asked to confront the heightened dangers they faced on the first Saturday in May.

At the same time, the storied Belmont Stakes assumes that Thoroughbreds are the same today as they were a thousand years ago, when running 1 1/2 miles at racing speed was as natural as roaming the prairie. With precious few exceptions, the horses who compete in the Belmont each year will never again be asked to run 12 furlongs in the afternoon, and then it would only be on the grass.

The Preakness, at a nifty 9 1/2 furlongs, actually looks like the rest of American middle-distance racing. There are scores of top events run each year between 9 and 10 furlongs, featuring fields of between six and 12 horses, offering an entertaining mix of front-runners and closers, and without a clutter of no-hopers looking for miracles.

In short, if the weather holds, the best horse usually wins the Preakness, which is exactly what will happen this year when Barbaro must deal with Brother Derek and Sweetnorthernsaint - the most aggrieved parties from the Derby - along with the fresh new shooter Bernardini.

The Preakness also has one other distinction of note. Its greatest fan base can be found in the management team of the New York Racing Association.

A Preakness victory by the Derby winner makes a "ka-ching" sound all the way up the interstate corridor to Belmont Park, where that sound you could hear on Saturday will be the attendance projections for the Belmont Stakes going through the roof. What then happens on Belmont Day makes little difference, once that Triple Crown throng is in the house, which is why NYRA execs are bigtime Barbaro fans.

"I can't argue with that," said Bill Nader, NYRA senior vice president. "We're holding our breath. Now I know what it feels like to be an owner or a trainer. Even when they're odds-on, they still look beatable."

Nader and his crew were getting Triple Crowned before Barbaro had even cooled out in Kentucky.

"People talk like it's a layup, like Barbaro couldn't lose the Preakness," he said. "But we've been around long enough to know it just isn't that easy."

Belmont Park still prepares for its biggest day of the New York season for the Belmont Stakes, with or without the prospect of a Triple Crown.

"With no Barbaro at all, we're looking at 60,000 people," Nader said. "With Barbaro, but no Triple Crown, somewhere closer to 70,000. With Barbaro and a Triple Crown, then we're over 100,000."

The trend is clear. Since 1997, there have been six Belmonts presented with a Triple Crown at stake, drawing live gates of 70,682, 80,162, 85,818, 103,222, 101,864 (in a steady rain), and an all-time 120,139 in 2004, when Smarty Jones came to town. After he lost, the figure was still 120,139.

So hold a kind thought for the Preakness, forgotten middle child, all-American to the core, and the most important New York race of the year.