05/13/2004 12:00AM

Preakness contender profiles

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1 Lion Heart

STRENGTHS: Lion Heart's performance in the Kentucky Derby did nothing to dissuade the widely held view that he is one of the top horses of his generation. He was easily second behind Smarty Jones and well clear of third-place finisher Imperialism. His consistency (first or second in all six career starts) is surpassed only by the unbeaten Smarty Jones among major 3-year-olds with as many starts. Lion Heart has an excellent chance of being the lone speed in the Preakness, just as he was in the Derby. And with the Preakness a sixteenth-mile shorter than the Derby, his chances of holding off horses rallying from off the pace are much better. Jockey Mike Smith's one classic victory occurred in the 1993 Preakness aboard Prairie Bayou.
WEAKNESSES: Still displays the characteristics of a one-dimensional runner. He did not set a relaxed pace over a sloppy Churchill surface, which seemed to favor those running near the lead, and setting a similar pace over a fast Pimlico surface may prove to be a liability. The early speed duel expected in the Derby did not materialize, but rival trainers may choose to not let Lion Heart get away with such any easy lead in the Preakness. A horse like Sir Shackleton could cause problems if he were to force the issue early. Has yet to win beyond 1 1/16 miles.
STRATEGY: The strategy is the same as it was two weeks ago: Go for the lead, set as relaxed a pace as possible, and hope there is enough left in the tank.
VALUE: Lion Heart will likely be the second choice in the wagering behind Smarty Jones, though there is a slight possibility he could be third choice if Rock Hard Ten receives stronger support than expected. His value doesn't necessarily lie in the win pool, but in exactas and trifectas with him in the top two or three spots with horses other than Smarty Jones.

- Vance Hanson

2 Borrego

STRENGTHS: Borrego experienced traffic problems in the Kentucky Derby, having to steady repeatedly for the first six furlongs. Then, when he finally got a chance to make his move, he lacked his usual zip. That is certainly understandable as being pelted by the slop from the horses up front can take away a closer's kick. The Preakness is often won by closers who suffered bad trips in the Kentucky Derby because of the large field. This race often is run truer in that the smaller field results in fewer traffic problems. Horses who have parlayed off-the-board finishes in Louisville to victory in Baltimore since the mid-1970's are: Little Current, Gate Dancer, Tank's Pros-pect, Snow Chief, Hansel, Pine Bluff, Tabasco Cat, and Louis Quatorze. Borrego drilled a bullet half-mile in 46 seconds at Churchill Downs on May 10 to indicate he is none the worse for wear and sitting on a big race. His Derby finish was so uncharacteristic of his ability that it is impossible to believe he will not rebound and deliver his "A" race - and, remember, he was closing on Smarty Jones at the end of 1 1/8 miles in Arkansas.
WEAKNESSES: Critics may point to the tight turns of Pimlico and argue that a late-runner like Borrego will have problems negotiating them. Most of his success has come when he is drawn inside, and he gets a post position to his liking today.
STRATEGY: A versatile runner, Borrego can come from off the pace or sit within striking distance of the leaders. With the Preakness pace likely to be lively, Borrego could be ready to deliver the knockout punch if Smarty Jones and Lion Heart engage each other too early.
VALUE: He will likely go off at 20-1 or better due to his Derby finish.

- Bill Howard

3 Little Matth Man

STRENGTHS: He has some excuses for his defeat in the Wood Memorial. A confirmed closer, he might have been compromised by the speed-favoring nature of the Aqueduct track. Also, it was reported that he displaced his palate during the running. Forgiving handicappers will draw a line through the Wood and concentrate on his more promising efforts earlier in the year.
A son of Matty G, Little Matth Man will reportedly run in the Preakness with three glue-on shoes, and they may give him better traction at Pimlico.
The pace should be strong, with Lion Heart, Smarty Jones, and Sir Shackleton expected to be close to the pace. A suicidal speed duel would really help this late-runner's stretch punch.
WEAKNESSES: He has yet to reach 90 on the Beyer scale, and his only stakes win came over a sloppy track. He must run faster in order to threaten the top contenders. Pimlico historically isn't too friendly to stretch runners, and he will be at the mercy of pace and racing luck. The Wood Memorial didn't turn out to be a very key Derby prep, as one-two finishers Tapit and Master David both ran terribly in Louisville. He hasn't won a race over 8 1/2 furlongs, and his pedigree is a bit questionable for this longer distance. Little Matth Man has yet to truly challenge the cream of the 3-year-old crop, and will receive a stern class test in the Preakness.
STRATEGY: He will probably lope along at the back of the pack for the first seven furlongs or so. He needs a quick and contentious pace to set up his late rally.
VALUE: He will be ignored by the betting public and should go off at odds between 35-1 and 50-1. Punters might play him on the bottom of trifectas and hope for the best, but others look more likely to win.

- Dan Illman

4 The Cliff's Edge

STRENGTHS: He is the only horse other than Smarty Jones and Imperialism, who ran first and third in the Derby, to have defeated Lion Heart. He was at the top of his game off the Blue Grass win, and the Beyer Speed Figure he earned in that race is tops in this field. He was at a disadvantage when losing both front shoes in the Kentucky Derby, yet he still managed to run fifth, beating 13 horses. Of the horses he beat in the Blue Grass, two showed up in the Derby superfecta (Lion Heart in second place and Limehouse in fourth). Trainer Nick Zito has also entered Derby Trial winner and speed horse Sir Shackleton with hopes that he'll take some steam out of front-runners Lion Heart and Smarty Jones.
WEAKNESSES: The Derby's top three finishers return in the Preakness this year. It will be tough to catch Lion Heart. Smarty Jones seems likely to repeat, and no one is questioning his ability to get the distance anymore. Imperialism figures to be a major factor, but he has done a lot of traveling and has also had a breeze since the Derby. The Cliff's Edge's only weakness at this point seems to be the issue of his feet, but if he's in, consider him good to go.
STRATEGY: You can't leave The Cliff's Edge out of exotics wagers. The bounce theory can't really be applied, considering all he had to overcome in the Derby. He had a ton of mud kicked in his face and lost two shoes but still managed to make a strong move. In the Preakness, Lion Heart, The Cliff's Edge, and possibly Rock Hard Ten have the best chances of upsetting Smarty Jones.
VALUE: He went off at longer odds than expected in the Derby, considering he had the best last-race Beyer in the field. The Cliff's Edge will probably be the fourth or fifth choice behind a heavily bet Smarty Jones and Lion Heart. It is likely that he will be anywhere from 8-1 to 12-1 in this one.

- Kristin Sadler

5 Song of the Sword

STRENGTHS: This underrated colt was not far away from the leaders at the second call of the Kentucky Derby after checking on the clubhouse turn. He did not work particularly well over the Churchill Downs surface prior to that classic, so perhaps his 11th-place finish can be dismissed. He has displayed rapid improvement since winning his maiden in early February and has had more than his share of traffic trouble in his brief career. Perhaps, in today's smaller field, he can gain a clearer rallying path and earn a significant share. Also, it may be wise to consider him over an off track despite the failure at Louisville in the slop. Many in his family tree, particularly damsire Crusader Sword, were superior off-track runners.
WEAKNESSES: Song of the Sword is primarily a one-run horse who can be victimized by a slow or ordinary pace. His most impressive race in defeat was in the Lexington Stakes at Keeneland when he had a difficult trip and nearly captured the place. The son of Unbridled's Song has never won outside of New York, however, and that is one of the major drawbacks to his chances today.
STRATEGY: Unable to keep pace with the primary contenders early, Song of the Sword seems reliant on someone to step up the early fractions or apply pressure to the early leaders in the Preakness. Without that prospect, his chances of an upset diminish.
VALUE: Song of the Sword was dismissed at more than 55-1 in the Derby and will be one of the rank outsiders in the wagering at Pimlico. If you toss that last effort as simply a case of not handling the Churchill Downs surface, he may be worth inclusion in one of the minor positions in your exotic plans on Preakness Day.

- Jim Kachulis

6 Sir Shackleton

STRENGTHS: Since losing his career debut, he has rallied strongly in each of next three starts, all victories. The fact that he beat the fleet Forest Danger (who won the Grade 3 Bay Shore two starts later, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 110) to the lead shows he has enough early speed if he chooses to go to the front. He jumped up to Grade 3 company without batting an eyelash, and his barn has had previous success in the Preakness.
WEAKNESSES: Although he won the Derby Trial, his Beyer Figure declined in that race, and without a 100 Beyer on his r?sum? he is a longshot to win a classic race. Horses who skip the Kentucky Derby seldom win this race (two in the last 21 years). Considering his trainer, Nick Zito, has also entered closer The Cliff's Edge, the possibility of him being used in the pace to help his stablemate exists. The last horse to do anything in the Preakness after winning the Derby Trial (Alydeed, second in 1992) posted a 110 Beyer in his race before the Preakness.
STRATEGY: He displayed an enormous amount of gate speed early in his career. He has been easy to rate and has passed horses. Will he be asked to go after the speed horses early? No one really challenged Lion Heart on the lead in the Derby, and being up close to the pace could also help his barnmate The Cliff's Edge.
VALUE: He has to be a huge price, as Smart Jones is likely to be bet below even money and several of the others with excuses two weeks ago will be bet down as well. Without a worthy Beyer on display and the good chance he gets used up in the pace, 30-1 seems about right for this outsider.

- Art Gropper

7 Smarty Jones

STRENGTHS: Two weeks ago, he became the first unbeaten Kentucky Derby winner since Seattle Slew in 1977. That is select company. It takes a special horse to go 7 for 7, and clearly Smarty Jones is a brilliant runner. Besides dominating the Derby with a Beyer Speed Figure of 107, his other races this spring were quick and powerful. Four times he has earned triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures, led by a 108 in the Rebel. His speed and versatility also serve him well. He has the speed to gain position, but is not a need-the-lead front-runner. He has also handled every surface, every track condition.
WEAKNESSES: To date, he has not shown any - that is the beauty of perfection. His speed-oriented pedigree was questioned heading into the Derby, as was his class. He had not raced in a Grade 1 before the Derby, and then soundly whipped runners with more top-race experience. If he has a weakness, it is the quick turnaround of two weeks between the Derby and Preakness - a time frame trainer John Servis admits is not ideal. His Derby win also came in the slop; perhaps he merely handled the footing better than his opponents did. Go for Gin, who won the last sloppy Derby in 1994, was later beaten by Tabasco Cat over fast tracks in the Preakness and Belmont.
STRATEGY: Look for regular rider Stewart Elliott to place him in a comfortable, tracking position, as he did in the Derby. Following his Derby win, Smarty Jones will be the target for everyone. So Elliott must avoid getting Smarty Jones boxed in or impeded. At the same time, he must respect the speed horses, particularly Lion Heart, and not let them get away.
VALUE: What value? Smarty Jones is the Sports Illustrated cover boy, he is adored by fans, and now even many of his Derby critics are believers. His bandwagon is crowded. Forget getting 4-1 on him, as in the Derby. He could start as low as 6-5. To some, that may still seem respectable on a horse who is undefeated.

- Byron King

8 Imperialism

STRENGTHS: Kristin Mulhall-trained colt was the only one moving late in the Kentucky Derby after a rough journey, so he has shown that the classic distances are well within his scope. The pace should once again be quick up front and that will play right into his hand as he has proven to be the most consistent off-the-pace runner in here. He has been working well since the Derby run and his resume includes two Grade 2 stakes scores. He will encounter a smaller field than he did in Louisville and that figures to increase the likelihood of a trouble- free journey.
WEAKNESSES: His style is to make one late run and that's not usually a successful game plan over the speed-favoring course at Pimlico. Despite the fact his style gives the impression that he's full of run late, he simply may not be as good as the big two in here and if he lets them get away early, he could be left with too much to do late. He beat Lion Heart in the Grade 2 San Rafael, but he also held a significant edge in conditioning going into that race and that colt has since gone on to place in two Grade 1 events, including the Kentucky Derby.
STRATEGY: It's certainly no secret that he will be taken back early and let loose for a late run. The Derby winner and pacesetter return, and Sir Shackleton will offer some pace pressure, but that's about it for early lick in here so he will need to be used a bit to keep from losing touch in the beginning stages of the race.
VALUE: He appears to be the "now" horse that all of the wise guys are targeting due to his strong late run in Kentucky, and that's sure to hamper his price at the mutuel windows. Such interest will likely make him the third or fourth choice in the wagering, but given his running style, that price may just be an underlay.

- Steve Grabowski

9 Eddington

STRENGTHS: Eddington's positional speed has to be considered one of his greatest strengths, as he has proven capable of adapting to any pace scenario by running well from both on and off the early pace. Another positive is that he is lightly raced, yet he has fared well against some top company in his last three starts, and it's reasonable to suspect that his best is still to come. An especially hungry Jerry Bailey - who didn't ride in the Kentucky Derby when Wimbledon was declared out - will be at the controls here, and Bailey is particularly dangerous when aboard a horse with tactical speed such as Eddington.
WEAKNESSES: If experience counts, then so, too, does inexperience, and Eddington still has a lot to prove. He has yet to win his first stakes race, and is still eligible for a two-other-than allowance race. It's also highly likely that he will need to post a career-best Beyer Figure just to find himself in the hunt on Saturday, and although he boasts the potential to make his way to the top of the class, actually proving himself on the racetrack is easier said than done.
STRATEGY: Really can't imagine that trainer Mark Hennig and Bailey will be talking too much prerace strategy with this colt. Bailey has plenty of experience with him, and Eddington is as versatile as they come. When the gate springs open, Bailey will judge the early pace - if it's slow, he'll move on with Eddington, and should things heat up early on he'll have him positioned comfortably off the early leaders.
VALUE: Eddington should offer plenty of value considering he still has a lot to prove, and although he's certainly an interesting newcomer aboard the Triple Crown trail, he ranks second behind Rock Hard Ten among those that missed the Kentucky Derby. Anything in the neighborhood of 10-1 seems acceptable here.

- Brian Pochman

10 Rock Hard Ten

STRENGTHS: Rock Hard Ten is a stunning animal. He's also shown handiness and agility that belies his size. He covers ground effortlessly, and his quality was validated with a huge run in the Santa Anita Derby. Off just a maiden win and allowance win, and having made his racing debut just two months before, Rock Hard Ten battled through the lane to just miss against a more seasoned Castledale. Rock Hard Ten's own antics late saw him disqualified back to third for interfering with Imperialism. It makes that effort look better, too, as Imperialism came back to be third in the Kentucky Derby.
WEAKNESSES: There's really only one - seasoning. He has just three races in him. All three races have come at just one track - Santa Anita - so this will also be the first time he's had to ship elsewhere and run. Trainer Jason Orman finds himself in new surroundings with a Preakness player, but that sure didn't hurt John Servis with Smarty Jones in the Derby, right?
STRATEGY: He showed enough speed to be within reach of a 45.40 half and 1:09.80 six-furlong split in his debut, so although he came from off the pace in his two routes, it's not as though he is sluggish or one-dimensional. He's not as quick as Lion Heart or Smarty Jones, but he doesn't figure too far away, and he has shown the push-button acceleration that can take him into the race in a matter of strides. He reminds one of Touch Gold.
VALUE: Smarty Jones's Derby win helps here enormously. Had an outsider won the Derby or had there been a blanket finish, players might have looked for the new face in the Preakness and ended up here. Smarty Jones now has to be well bet, and Lion Heart, The Cliff's Edge, Eddington, and Imperialism will also take some money. But there's some wiseguy status to this guy, so he could even be second choice.

- Michael Hammersly

11 Water Cannon

STRENGTHS: Smarty Jones isn't the only horse in the Preakness who has yet to lose in 2004. Local hopeful Water Cannon hasn't tasted defeat since adding blinkers five starts ago. He's looking to outrun long odds in a manner similar to Magic Weisner, the 45-1 runner-up in the 2002 Preakness. That Maryland-bred didn't even capture his final prep for the second jewel, like this Tesio victor did. Water Cannon, by Grade 1, 1 1/2-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Waquoit, has made excellent use of his tactical speed during his win streak. He has the advantage of a successful local prep, and is the lone Preakness starter to have even raced at Pimlico.
WEAKNESSES: Water Cannon is tested for class in the Preakness. He has not yet competed in a graded stakes, let alone a Grade 1 event, and has yet to earn a 90 Beyer Speed Figure. Two of his three stakes triumphs were earned by less than one length, with the latest a victory over filly Pawyne Princess (entered in Friday's Black-Eyed Susan). He has defeated no more than six foes in any of those races. Trainer Linda Albert is hitting at a fine 27 percent clip this year, but she and Ryan Fogelsonger, the 2002 Eclipse-winning apprentice, have the odds stacked against them.
STRATEGY: Water Cannon is hoping to prompt slow fractions on Saturday. The gelding hasn't dealt with fast splits during his win streak, so a quick pace could place him in an unfamiliar closer's role. Fogelsonger must break him alertly from post 11 and secure stalking position behind probable pacesetter Lion Heart. He will be attempting to grind out an upset from close range.
VALUE: Not many expect Water Cannon to rise to the occasion against tougher competition, so it will be reasonable to see him start in the neighborhood of 35-1. His winning race over the track and positional speed will tempt some, but the steep class hill justifies those long odds.

- Paul Malecki