05/14/2007 12:00AM

Preakness appetizers

Email

Although the Preakness is the main focus at Pimlico this Saturday there will be eight stakes on the program, including six graded races, plus a starter handicap for Maryland-breds.

The most intriguing of these supporting stakes, however, will not be one of the graded events. It's the $100,000 Barbaro Stakes for 3-year-olds, a race likely to draw lightly raced Chelokee, who had been listed as a probable for the Preakness until trainer Michael Matz lowered his sights last weekend.

Matz reasoned that the late developing Chelokee probably would benefit from a race against less accomplished competition, seven weeks after he rallied for third in the Florida Derby despite having to alter course in the upper stretch.

Chelokee had been under strong consideration for the Kentucky Derby, before Matz shipped him to Delaware Park a few days before the post draw, mostly because Chelokee's limited graded stakes earnings were likely to exclude him from the starting field of 20.

While perfectly eligible to make the Preakness starting field, Chelokee now will be a strong sentimental favorite to win the Barbaro, formerly known as the Sir Barton until Pimlico management renamed it earlier this year to honor the 2006 Kentucky Derby winner who broke down in last year's Preakness.

As most of the world knows, Matz trained Barbaro and had to cope with difficult emotions while his Derby winner was dealing with multiple fractures to his right rear leg and battles with laminitis in his left rear that eventually ended his life seven months after the Preakness.

Sentiment or no, Chelokee will be meeting a good field in the Barbaro, a race that has helped prepare several horses in past years for the Belmont Stakes and other Grade 1 events.

Among the possible starters are Graham Motion's pair of Adore the Gold and Longley, the Ken McPeek-trained Bold Start; Deadly Dealer from Todd Pletcher's barn; the D. Wayne Lukas horse Starbase, and the Nick Zito-trained Most Distinguished.

Adore the Gold is a multiple stakes winner, beaten only a length by Scat Daddy in the Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream in February. Longley has a victory over the track at the Barbaro distance of 1 1/16 miles. Bold Start was third to probable Preakness starter Flying First Class in the Derby Trial Stakes at Churchill Downs. Deadly Dealer set the pace for seven furlongs in Curlin's Arkansas Derby victory on April 14 and has worked sharply at Keeneland. Starbase was second to the vastly improved Slew's Tizzy when he won the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 21. Most Distinguished was fourth in Street Sense's Tampa Bay Derby win on March 18.

In the five graded stakes on the Preakness undercard, here are two sharp horses nominated for each race who will be worth a close look, even if they skip these races and show up somewhere else during the final two weeks in May.

* Grade 2, $250,000 Dixie Stakes, 1 1/8 miles, turf, for 3-year-olds-and-up: Saint Stephen, hampered by a difficult trip on the Keeneland Polytrack in the Ben Ali Stakes on April 26, certainly would be worth a close look if shipped in from New York for this. Last year, Saint Stephen won a one-mile, minor stakes over the Pimlico grass course and with 4 wins from 11 tries at nine furlongs on turf, this could be an ideal spot.

Likewise, Minister's Joy, a versatile 5-year-old son of Deputy Minister trained by Shug McGaughey, seems primed for another solid try in graded stakes company after his sharp stretch-running second in the Ben Ali.

* Grade 3, $200,000 Maryland Sprint Handicap, six furlongs, 3-year-olds and up: Diabolical, outrun in the 2006 Preakness, but second in the Grade 1 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct on April 7, has been training well at Fair Hill for Steve Klesaris. Yet, the Nick Zito-trained absentee Commentator, would be a hard horse to handle if he goes.

As a sign of his current sharpness, Commentator worked five furlongs at Churchill Downs on May 7 in 58.80 seconds with some speed in reserve. The 2005 Whitney Handicap winner was last seen fading badly in the seven-furlong Forego at Saratoga on Sept 2, but is 8 for 11 lifetime, including several runaway wins in one-turn races.

* Grade 3, $100,000 Gallorette Handicap, 1 1/16 miles, turf, for fillies and mares: Grigorieva should benefit from her stretch-running second-place finish in the Dahlia Stakes at Laurel last month. That was her first outing in America and her first start since fading to ninth at 4-5 odds in France last summer. Obviously, trainer Graham Motion has recovered the form that led to Grigorieva's two stakes victories and two seconds in her first five career starts, all in France.

That notwithstanding, the horse to beat in this race certainly would be Lady of Venice, should trainer Patrick Biancone send her to Pimlico from his Keeneland base. A graded stakes winner last year and an allowance winner at Keeneland in April, Lady of Venice was scratched from the Churchill Downs Distaff Handicap on Derby Day due to a cut on her knee and soft turf conditions.

* Grade 3, $100,000 William Donald Schaefer Handicap, 1 1/8 miles, for 3-year-olds and up: Harlington, winner of the Gulfstream Park Handicap 15 months ago and fourth in the Pimlico Special last May, has been training well at Belmont for trainer Todd Pletcher. The Schaefer would be a logical spot for his first outing of 2007, but Pletcher regularly moves his horses around when he sees a stakes race with a weakness.

Likewise, the Pletcher-trained Fairbanks, winner of the Grade 3 Tokyo City Handicap at Santa Anita on March 31 is another possibility, having recently worked well at Churchill Downs.

* Grade 3, $100,000 Hirsch Jacobs, six furlongs, 3-year-olds: The King Leatherbury-trained Heart Throbbin', claimed for $40,000 in September 2006, is seeking his third stakes win and first in a graded event. But the Maryland-based gelding might have to deal with the Steve Asmussen-trained Probation Ready, who won a pair of stakes this year in Louisiana. Both horses also could find this race a bit tougher than anticipated should any of the logical contenders in the Barbaro drop into this sprint to avoid Chelokee.

As for the Preakness, here are a few lingering thoughts to consider: While locally based longshots and sharp performers from the Derby Trial and/or the Withers Stakes frequently finish among the top three in the Preakness, this year's one-two-three finishers in the Kentucky Derby represent a formidable trio. That said, it will be an upset of sorts should Street Sense, Hard Spun, and Curlin repeat their exact order of finish at Pimlico.

For one thing, Street Sense was specifically pointed for the Kentucky Derby. For another, second-place finisher Hard Spun figures to be a stronger foe in the shorter Preakness. Likewise, the lightly raced Curlin is eligible to improve after getting thoroughly tested in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby.