05/20/2001 11:00PM

Monarchos commands spotlight

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BALTIMORE - Monarchos was the forgotten horse at the Kentucky Derby, but after his victory at an overlaid 10-1 two weeks ago, he is now the focal point of Saturday's 126th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course.

"When you win the Derby, there's a big, red X painted on you," said John T. Ward Jr., who trains Monarchos. "We're a target. We're aware of that."

A victory will send Monarchos to New York's Belmont Park with a chance to become the 12th Triple Crown winner by capturing the June 9 Belmont Stakes.

But first Monarchos must again defeat four horses he crushed at Churchill Downs, as well as six newcomers, in what shapes up as one of the best Preaknesses in years.

"I thought if he got by the Derby, the Belmont would be best suited to Monarchos," Ward said. "The Preakness gives me the most concern of the three."

The reasons for Ward's concern are many. The Preakness is a different beast than the Derby. It has a smaller field, 11 runners compared with 17, and figures to have a pace not nearly as scalding as the record-setting fractions in the Derby. The distance is 110 yards shorter, 1 3/16 miles as opposed to the Derby's 1 1/4 miles. For many of these horses, including Monarchos, it is the first time - perhaps the only time - in their careers that they will run on just 14 days' rest. One similarity is that all runners again carry 126 pounds.

"I wish this race was a mile and a quarter," Ward said. "I'd like four or five weeks between races. But that's the game. That's what the Triple Crown is all about. There are less Triple Crown winners than popes. It's all-elusive."

The Preakness purse is $1 million, with $650,000 going to the winner, but the rewards for Monarchos could be far greater. Should Monarchos add the Preakness and Belmont to his Derby victory, his owner, John Oxley, will receive a $5 million bonus from Visa, which sponsors the Triple Crown.

The Preakness has several interesting subplots. Point Given, the Derby favorite, is attempting to redeem himself after finishing fifth in the Derby. Congaree, who was third in the Derby, has switched jockeys, to Jerry Bailey, who won last year's Preakness on Red Bullet. Victor Espinoza, who was removed from Congaree, picked up the mount on A P Valentine, who had a brutal trip in the Derby.

Dollar Bill, who also encountered severe traffic trouble in the Derby, could give his jockey, Pat Day, a sixth Preakness victory, which would tie Day with Eddie Arcaro for the Preakness record. Jennifer Leigh-Pedersen, the trainer of Griffinite, is the ninth woman to train a Preakness starter. None has won. Should Percy Hope win, he will earn a $1 million bonus, courtesy of Lone Star Park, which rewards a horse who can win the Lone Star Derby and any Triple Crown race. The six newcomers - Bay Eagle, Griffinite, Marciano, Mr. John, Percy Hope, and Richly Blended - are trying to emulate Red Bullet, who won last year's Preakness after skipping the Derby.

The drama will unfold at 6:04 Eastern on Saturday, the scheduled post time for the Preakness. It is the 11th race on a 12-race card that begins at 10:45 a.m. There are five stakes races on the undercard, two of which - the Maryland Breeders' Cup Handicap for sprinters and the Dixie Handicap for older turf horses - have outstanding fields.

A crowd of more than 90,000 is expected for the Preakness, which will be televised live by NBC Sports in a 90-minute telecast beginning at 5 p.m. The National Weather Service forecast for Saturday is encouraging - a high in the upper 70's, with partly cloudy skies. However, it was cool and cloudy at Pimlico on Thursday, and rain was predicted for both late Thursday and Friday. The amount of rainfall was expected to be no more than a quarter of an inch, insignificant in terms of its effect on the racetrack.

Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, installed Monarchos as the early 2-1 favorite, with Point Given at 5-2 and Congaree at 3-1. No one else is less than 10-1 on his line.

The speedy Richly Blended, who won the Withers Stakes two weeks ago, is expected to have the early lead. "He's fast leaving there," said his trainer, Ben Perkins Jr. "Hopefully he can clear and relax, and go as far as he can."

Congaree should be laying close to the pace, but his trainer, Bob Baffert, is hoping he will relax better than he did in the Derby. Congaree is having blinkers removed for this race, and gets Bailey for the first time.

"But I'm sure he'll have the lead again turning for home. He can't help it," Baffert said, smiling.

Baffert's other colt, Point Given, will not be rushed early, in contrast to the strategy used in the Derby by jockey Gary Stevens. This time, Baffert said, Point Given will be allowed to lope along early at his own speed, with the hope he will then produce the strong finish that characterized his earlier races.

Monarchos again will rally from behind, but he is not likely to fall as far back as he did in the Derby. The pace should be more sensible than in the Derby, but Ward said Monarchos will not be asked to stay closer to the front if the pace slows to a crawl.

"He's got a pretty patented game," Ward said. "It's too chancy to adjust his game. I think it'll be a real cat-and-mouse game with the pace. There should be less heat. The field should be closer together."

In both the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby, Monarchos unleashed a powerful mid-race move.

"It's like when you're on the freeway, and some red Suzuki motorcycle zips by you in traffic," Ward said. "When he starts his run, his body drops two inches lower. He's such a powerful horse in his shoulders. He can maneuver right and left while going forward."

The maneuverability Monarchos displayed in the Derby enabled him to avoid the traffic trouble that hampered A P Valentine and Dollar Bill, who were forced to steady sharply when Keats suddenly stopped.

The five horses coming out of the Derby are the five most accomplished horses in the race. But they also had the hardest race two weeks ago. Can Monarchos win right back?

"He's coming into this race better than the horses that ran behind him," Ward said. "They put in honest races. Everybody's got to come back in two weeks. I like where I am."