04/01/2011 3:44PM

Preakness 5.5 doesn't fix the big issue

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From all the indignant commentary, not to mention YouTube hits, this past week, you would think the biggest change in this year’s Preakness Stakes is that Pimlico officials have created a half-human, half-horse mascot named Kegasus to be the race’s official infield mascot. While Kegasus has generated a lot of attention, something every bit as weird as a beer-swilling centaur could have a much larger effect on this year’s Preakness and Triple Crown chase: the “Preakness 5.5” bonus scheme, which will start generating a lot more talk if Dialed In or Soldat wins Sunday’s Florida Derby or Anthony’s Cross, Premier Pegasus, or Silver Medallion wins next Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby.

A victory by any of those five colts this week will put them two-thirds of the way toward winning a $5.5 million bonus in the Preakness under a complicated scheme announced last August by MI Developments, which owns Pimlico and the three tracks – Golden Gate, Gulfstream and Santa Anita − at which the bonus-qualifying races are held.

When MID announced the Preakness 5.5 last August, it attracted cursory attention, perhaps because it was released the Friday before the Travers and Pacific Classic, perhaps because the set-up was so convoluted. There are five paths to becoming eligible for the bonus, three in California and two in Florida: First you have to win either the El Camino Real Derby (Silver Medallion), R.B. Lewis (Anthony’s Cross), or San Felipe (Premier Pegasus) and then the Santa Anita Derby; or you have to win the Holy Bull (Dialed In) or Fountain of Youth (Soldat) and then the Florida Derby.

The peculiarity of the scheme is coming into focus as it plays out this week. If any of those five colts wins, he will be running for almost 10 times as much money as the other Preakness starters, regardless of how he runs – or if he even starts – in the Kentucky Derby. Let’s say for argument’s sake that Uncle Mo wins the Kentucky Derby and Soldat, after winning the Florida Derby, runs 14th at Churchill Downs. Two weeks later, Uncle Mo would be running for a winner’s prize of around $600,000 in the Preakness, whereas a victory by Soldat would earn him $6.1 million.

Fortunately, the five 3-year-olds still eligible for the bonus are all colts, and winning the Derby is as valuable to their potential value as stallions as a $5.5 million bonus. Suppose, though, that there was a gelding in the group. It might be more than a little tempting to his connections to skip the Derby, where victory is worth $1.2 million, and point for a $6.1 million Preakness payday with a fresher horse in a smaller field.

It is difficult to believe anyone at MID set out to disrupt the Triple Crown, racing’s signature event, but just as difficult to see much benefit from this bonus.

“The purpose of this grand prize,” said Frank Stronach, MID chairman, “is to provide a spectacular event for the fans and to create a potential life-changing experience for the stakeholders of the racing industry.”

The Preakness, however, already provides more than enough spectacle and life-changing possibilities. The presence of the Derby winner, who has contested the race in all but one of the last 25 years, accomplishes that all by itself. The quest for a Triple Crown, which has gone unclaimed for 32 years, will be the compelling storyline, not whether a Derby-skipper or also-ran can earn an extra $5 million.

The Preakness has in recent years had a problem getting horses who lose the Derby to come back two weeks later. With no chance at a Triple Crown, today’s trainers prefer to regroup and point for the Belmont. The Preakness 5.5 does not really address this issue, as it could motivate a maximum of two more horses to run in the Preakness if things broke perfectly. More often, it would have no effect while potentially steering an eligible horse from a Derby start.

A better plan would have been to reinstitute some sort of Triple Crown participation bonus that might motivate all beaten Derby runners to return in the Preakness, or some sort of bonus plan among the three Triple Crown tracks to reward a horse who wins more than one of the three races.

At least we don’t have to fret about the even more complicated “Black-Eyed Susan 2.2” bonus plan unveiled along the Preakness 5.5 last August. That four-step plan required a filly to win three (rather than the males’ two) prep races to be eligible for a $2.2 million bonus in the Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan. All paths to that one went through the Gulfstream Oaks on April 2, but no filly won both the requisite first two legs − Portland Meadows Oaks/Santa Anita Oaks, Las Virgenes/Santa Anita Oaks, or Forward Gal/Davona Dale − to remain eligible.

Though it might have been fun to hear Kegasus trying to explain it all after a few refills of his $20 bottomless beer cup.