05/16/2002 12:00AM

Maybe it's just not his race

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - If Bobby Frankel is going to win the Preakness Stakes on Saturday with Medaglia d'Oro, it's too bad Laffit Pincay won't be along for the ride.

It may seem like ancient history now, but there was a time the two men made regular headlines together. In 1973, Pincay was aboard Life Cycle in the Hollywood Turf Invitational when they defeated grass champion Cougar II to give Frankel his first major victory in Southern California. When Frankel won a record 60 races during the 1972 Hollywood Park meet, Pincay was riding first call. And when Pincay began riding summers at Del Mar in 1976, winning 86 races in 43 days, Frankel provided him with a barn full of ammunition.

Pincay helped put Medaglia d'Oro on the Triple Crown trail in March with a cool piece of work in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. It was their first encounter, as well as Medaglia d'Oro's first race over a route of ground.

The colt took the early lead, was passed on the far turn, then came on again through the stretch to win like a seasoned pro. Pincay was impressed. Frankel began to think Derby.

In the subsequent Wood Memorial, Medaglia d'Oro found himself on the pace and under pressure from another relatively inexperienced colt, Buddha. They made an exciting race of it all the way around before they were joined in a three-way at the wire by Sunday Break. Buddha, on the rail, ended up beating Medaglia d'Oro and Pincay by a head.

After the Wood, Frankel wondered what would have happened if Pincay could have eased Medaglia d'Oro off the pace. Be careful what you wish for. In the Kentucky Derby, Medaglia d'Oro missed the break, and Pincay spent most of the mile and a quarter threading his way through the field.

Their fourth-place finish to War Emblem has since become the stuff of legend. The trip gets worse with each passing day. Bombay Duck had a bottle thrown at him in the 1975 Kentucky Derby, and Cavonnier was nearly hit by a football at the '96 Preakness - love those infield scamps - but to hear the spin on Medaglia d'Oro's Derby journey, you would think he had to navigate a mix of the Maginot Line and the Khyber Pass.

To help erase the memory, Frankel has replaced Pincay for the Preakness. Jerry Bailey gets the mount, which is no surprise, since Bailey has become Frankel's regular go-to guy for East Coast engagements. But no rider is immune to the rub of the green. Take a look at 2002 Donn Handicap, for instance, in which Bailey and Red Bullet found more trouble in a field of 14 than Medaglia d'Oro could experience in a lifetime of 18-horse Derbies.

Pimlico's loss is Hollywood Park's gain. With Victor Espinoza, Mike Smith, Chris McCarron, Kent Desormeaux, and Gary Stevens off to ride the Preakness, local fans will get a full dose of Pincay this Saturday.

"Unless I'm on a horse with a chance, I'd rather stay home and take care of business," Pincay said.

After winning a Derby and three Belmonts, Pincay can be forgiven if the second jewel of the Triple Crown lacks a certain amount of luster. He has ridden the race only four times, on four very good colts, and each time there was nothing but emptiness at the end of the day.

Sham set the mood in 1973. Already stung by Secretariat's powerful move on the final turn of the Kentucky Derby, Pincay was anxious to take the initiative and keep Big Red at bay. Entering the first turn at Pimlico, Pincay was pleased. Leaving the turn, the race was over. Secretariat had looped the field to glide past Sham under a pull.

In 1975, Pincay and the roguish Diabolo finished third, as they had in the Kentucky Derby. In the Derby stretch, Diabolo had swerved into Avatar, hurting both their chances. In the Preakness, Pincay found himself in the middle of the turn for home, closer to Winner Avenue than the rail, and still lost by only two lengths.

Pincay did not necessarily expect to beat Spectacular Bid in 1979 aboard General Assembly, but they had finished second in the Derby, and strange things can happen in the Preakness.

While Pincay was cruising along aboard his colt, pretty much minding his own business, Cordero and Screen King were on a bizarre mission. First, Cordero parked Spectacular Bid and young Ron Franklin wide down the backstretch. Once Spectacular Bid asserted his superiority and cleared Screen King, Cordero dropped his mount left and forced General Assembly to steady at the three-eighths. In fairness, Pincay's colt may have already shot his bolt.

But it wasn't pretty. General Assembly finished last of five. Later, he won the Travers.

Pincay had every reason to enter the 1984 Preakness on a high after Swale gave him his first, and only, Kentucky Derby victory. But Swale was a sensitive colt who needed more than those two brief weeks between races.

He gave himself the day off at Pimlico, finishing seventh to Gate Dancer, then bounced right back to win the Belmont for Laffit by way of apology.

So don't feel sorry for Pincay when you watch him win three or four at Hollywood on Saturday. Besides, backfin Maryland crabcakes have never been part of his diet.