05/16/2007 12:00AM

Pimlico's golden rail long gone


PHILADELPHIA - The earth is flat. Mike Tyson is the heavyweight champion. Iraq is a good idea. Pimlico is speed-biased.

Once something is repeated often enough, it becomes reality. The reality becomes irrelevant.

Turned out the earth was not flat. Buster Douglas beat Tyson 17 years ago. "Mission accomplished" was four years ago. Speed-biased Pimlico was more than 20 years ago.

None of which stops the spring rite of going from Churchill Downs to Pimlico, from the Kentucky Derby to the Preakness. You know the drill. Tight turns, speed-biased track.

As someone who was there practically every day during the era of speed-biased Pimlico, I can assure you it was exactly that way. I can also assure you it has not been that way for a generation.

I remember a Saturday at Pimlico where I cold punched a daily double of two 30-1 sprinters that each had collapsed in a sprint race the week before. This time, they were going 1o1/16 miles and I was salivating.

Playing those two horses went against every handicapping precept - unless you understood the essential Pimlico of the mid-1970's to the mid-1980's. These were the kinds of horses you had to play.

Each horse went wire-to-wire and won easily. The double came to more than $500 and I had it a few times.

I know people who boxed 1, 2, 3 in every race of the meet and made money. If you looked beyond the first few calls of a horse's past performances, you were making a mistake. How they finished was irrelevant. It was all about how they started.

The 1982 Preakness was the most famous example of how the bias affected results. Earlier on the card, Bill Shoemaker rode an exceptional horse from trainer Henry Clark's barn named Oh Say. The horse was so good that he came wide, ran right through the bias, and won easily.

That race cost Shoemaker and Clark the Preakness. Clark had passed the Derby with Linkage because he wanted to win his hometown race more than he wanted to win the Derby. Gato Del Sol, a horse that Linkage had beaten easily in the Blue Grass, won the Derby. So Linkage looked like a cinch in the Preakness.

And he would have been if Shoemaker, coming in from California, had been aware of the bias. He was not. Jack Kaenel on Aloma's Ruler cruised to the lead. Shoemaker and Linkage came wide in the stretch and, on any other track in America, probably would have gone right on by. At Pimlico, they never got by. In fact, they could have gone around again and the result probably would have been the same, so strong was speed and the rail in those days.

Calvin Bo-Rail would have loved riding at Pimlico then. He may never have lost a race.

This Pimlico is not that Pimlico. Street Sense won't win just by hugging the rail, although the shortest route is rarely a bad strategy. Street Sense will win if he's the best horse.

A bias could pop up Saturday. But it could be a bias toward outside closers. You will just have to pay attention and adjust accordingly.

Back in the day, you could sit at home the night before, knowing what you were going to get. Understanding how races would be run was the only meaningful handicapping factor. Life has gotten more complicated.

Now, you have to decide if Hard Spun's best race will be compromised by the speed of Flying First Class. Or if Curlin's traffic issues in the Derby are worth eight lengths. Or if Street Sense can win without a dream trip or duplicate his top form on just two weeks' rest.

Maybe, Hard Spun can rate and win like he did in the Lane's End. Perhaps, Curlin showed the courage of a true champion by passing horses in the stretch when most horses with his profile would have been looking for a place to lie down. And, maybe, because Street Sense is one of the great turn runners we have seen since Sunday Silence, the Derby winner is always going to be close when the field turns for home.

Was it the eight-week layoff and outside post that caused Circular Quay to make no impact on the Derby? Will Todd Pletcher ever win a Triple Crown race?

Those are the kinds of questions we should all be asking ourselves when we sit down to finalize Preakness selections and wagering strategy.

If you hear anybody ask about Pimlico's speed bias, ignore them. If you hear anybody explain why a horse will be helped by the speed bias, forget them.

Repeat after me. Pimlico is a one-mile oval. This is not the 1970's or 1980's. Handicap the race, not the racetrack.