05/20/2001 11:00PM

Preakness balance tips in favor of Congaree

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BALTIMORE - Racing fans analyzing the Preakness will face a choice that horseplayers confront every day, in the humblest claiming races as well as the biggest stakes:

Horse A won his last race with an exceptional performance, but he did so with the aid of a perfect trip.

Horse B lost to A, but he ran creditably in the face of adversity.

Which one do you bet in their rematch?

I'll put my money on B, almost every time. And so will most serious handicappers. When horses get all the breaks in a race they are apt to look impressive, even invincible, but usually they won't duplicate the performance under normal conditions. And they will invariably be overbet. Horses prove their merit definitively when they encounter tough circumstances and perform well, even if they don't get to the winner's circle.

In the Preakness, of course, Horse A is Monarchos, the impressive winner of the Kentucky Derby, and B is Congaree, who finished nearly five lengths behind him.

Monarchos's win was impressive by any standards. He won by a decisive margin, and he ran faster than any Derby winner but Secretariat. This effort was not a fluke; the colt's victory in the Florida Derby had been a powerful one, too. Still, no stretch-runner could have a better set-up than Monarchos got at Churchill Downs. The leaders enervated themselves by running the fastest early fractions in Derby history. The hot pace abetted all the come-from-behind horses, but unlike others, Monarchos didn't run into traffic or lose ground by looping the field. He got through on the rail much of the way, thanks to a flawless ride by Jorge Chavez. Stretch-runners don't enjoy such smooth trips very often.

Congaree was a victim of the pace that benefited Monarchos. He was part of a lead pack of five horses running the first half-mile in a breathtaking 44.86 seconds. The other four, all major stakes winners, collapsed and lost by more than 20 lengths. Yet Congaree kept battling, fought off other challenges, and took the lead until he faded in the final furlong. It was an exceptional effort.

If comparable circumstances arose in an ordinary race, I would be proclaiming that Horse B can't lose. Is the Preakness any different? Maybe.

The Triple Crown races are unlike any others. Historical evidence suggests that factors are important in the classics that wouldn't be considered in any other race. For example, horses almost never win the Kentucky Derby unless they have a solid foundation of experience that stretches back to their 2-year-old season. Late-blooming phenoms always flop on the first Saturday in May because they have tried to cram too much preparation into too short a time. Congaree, who didn't score his first career victory until Feb. 28, was the embodiment of this type, yet he ran a superior race at Churchill Downs.

But might not the stress of the Derby, coming after his hurry-up preparation, take a toll on him now? One who thinks so is John Ward, Monarchos's trainer. "He's had to perform at the top level for about 2 1/2 months and he hasn't had a break at all," Ward observed. "I think the Derby might have been an over-the-top race for him."

By contrast, Monarchos is surely not over the top. Ward trained him easily before the Derby, making sure there was still plenty left in the tank for the Preakness.

There is another historical guideline relevant to the Triple Crown, and to the other contender in Saturday's Preakness, Point Given. Before the Kentucky Derby he was widely regarded as the outstanding horse in the field. Although he didn't have an easy trip from post 17, he still gave a lifeless performance and finished a badly beaten fifth. In an ordinary race, I would throw him out automatically. A handicapper shouldn't forgive a horse for running poorly without a good reason.

But the Derby and the Preakness often confound conventional handicapping. Author Steve Davidowitz recently made this observation in a DRF Simulcast Weekly column: "High-class Derby starters who simply did not run their race at all are more likely to win the Preakness than . . . horses who tried hard to win the Derby but were unable to get the job done." Louis Quatorze

(16th in the 1996 Derby), Pine Bluff (fifth in 1992), and Hansel (10th in 1991) were among the many who bounced back in Baltimore after inexcusable losses in Louisville.

While there are pros and cons for each of the three leading contenders in Saturday's race, one of them is surely going to win. None of the other eight entrants appears capable of springing an upset. Richly Blended is an excellent miler, but he doesn't have the stamina for the Preakness's 1 3/16-mile distance. Dollar Bill has encountered plenty of trouble in his recent races, but he doesn't have enough talent. A P Valentine had a brutal trip in the Derby, and with luck could have finished second, but he nevertheless hasn't won a race of consequence in six months.

Any of several plausible scenarios could unfold in the Preakness. Monarchos could dominate his rivals again, particularly if Congaree is ready to tail off and Point Given's poor showing in Louisville wasn't an aberration. Point Given could bounce back and live up to his pre-Derby hype. But I will make a bet that Congaree will win impressively, based on conventional and simplistic handicapping logic. Judging from the evidence of the Kentucky Derby, he's the best horse.

? 2001, The Washington Post