05/16/2005 12:00AM

Paring down Preakness contenders


NEW YORK - The fact that 20 of the last 21 winners of the Preakness Stakes made their last start in the Kentucky Derby should surprise no one. By definition, the best 3-year-olds race in the Derby, not in the Federico Tesio, and not in the Withers. Plus, the majority of starters in the Preakness are horses who came out of the Derby.

As obvious as this point may be, it is worth remembering when it comes to thinking about Saturday's 130th running of the Preakness at Pimlico. Given the way this year's Derby was run, and the bombs-away result, there is a strong temptation among many horseplayers to look toward the new shooters on the Triple Crown trail Saturday.

When you do, this is what you see: Malibu Moonshine and Hal's Image, who have career-best Beyer Speed Figures of only 85; Golden Man, who lost in a maiden $12,500 claimer at Calder last September and was claimed for $60,000 two starts back; and Galloping Grocer, who lost at 4-5 in a restricted stakes in his last start, and in his four starts this year still hasn't matched his 2-year-old form. Only Withers winner Scrappy T resembles anything close to a legitimate contender, but he doesn't look anything like Red Bullet, who in his upset of Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 became the only one of the last 21 Preakness winners who had not made his last start in the Derby. The one time Scrappy T ran against a real Derby horse, he finished more than 18 lengths behind Bellamy Road in the Wood Memorial.

With this in mind, any discussion of Saturday's Preakness begs further analysis of the colts coming out of the Kentucky Derby. There is no need to discuss the Derby's pathetically slow final half-mile of 53.16, or its weak winning Beyer Figure of 100, because that has been done to death.

If you toss out the hopeless pair of Going Wild and High Limit, the others considering going from the Derby to the Preakness can be placed into two groups of four. The first set consists of Giacomo, Closing Argument, Afleet Alex, and Wilko, who are grouped together because, for good or bad, they all pretty much ran their races in the Derby. In fact, Giacomo and Closing Argument, who finished one-two at 50-1 and 71-1, respectively, achieved new career-best Beyers. Afleet Alex got a flawless ride from Jeremy Rose, had every chance to win, but settled for third because he just didn't seem as effective at the 1 1/4 miles as he was going shorter. But Afleet Alex was his usual consistent self and that ensures him being the favorite Saturday even if 1 3/16 miles turns out to be a sixteenth of a mile too far. Wilko, who was sixth, ran only 1 Beyer point below his San Felipe, 4 below his third in the Hollywood Futurity, and just 7 points below his third in the Santa Anita Derby.

The bad news for this group is twofold. First, they each ran as well as they could, but did so in a race that was the most poorly run Triple Crown event since Commendable went the last six furlongs of the 2000 Belmont Stakes in 1:16.80, and still somehow won. Bad Triple Crown races just don't occur that often, so the chances of having two poorly run ones in the span of two weeks seems remote. Secondly, there were horses who finished behind them who have already shown they are capable of performing much, much better.

That's where the second group of four comes in, consisting of Sun King, Noble Causeway, Greeley's Galaxy, and High Fly. Six of Sun King's seven races before the Derby were better than his 15th place finish, although with off-the-board finishes in his last two, he looks to be out of form. Noble Causeway's second in the Florida Derby was 18 Beyer points better than his 14th in the Derby, as was Greeley's Galaxy's Illinois Derby win compared to his 11th in Kentucky, so a large rebound for both is certainly possible.

Then there is High Fly. He fell off 13 Beyer points from his victory in the Florida Derby to his 10th in the Kentucky Derby. But in Kentucky, High Fly was very close to the hot pace from the start, was battling for the lead turning for home, was still in there punching at the eighth pole, and was beaten less than eight lengths for all the money. It may be that like Afleet Alex, High Fly is essentially a 1 1/8-mile horse, but he is the only member of the prospective Preakness field who ran hard in the Derby when it was really meaningful and did not have things fall into his lap.

All of which will make him the wise guy pick.