05/08/2003 11:00PM

Preakness getting the snub


NEW YORK - By the time you read this, perhaps Bobby Frankel will have changed his mind a third time and decide to send Empire Maker to the Preakness after all. Maybe Dynever was a late scratch from the Lone Star Derby and is on his way to Baltimore. It's not impossible the "Seabiscuit" producers decided their movie needs some more promotion and Atswhatimtalknbout will be contesting the second leg of the Triple Crown.

At this writing, though, it appears that only two 3-year-olds on anyone's list of the nation's top 10, Funny Cide and Peace Rules, will be running next Saturday at Pimlico. They're also the only two of the top 10 finishers from the Derby expected to race. You have to go down to 11th place (Scrimshaw) to find a third Derby starter who will return in the Preakness.

It's the weakest link between the two races since at least 1982, when the Derby winner, Gato Del Sol, skipped the Preakness and the Preakness favorite, Linkage, had skipped the Derby. Eddie Gregson, Gato Del Sol's trainer, was considered a heretic for doing what a small posse of Derby trainers have decided to do this year - pass the Preakness and go straight to the Belmont.

Pimlico management in 1982 put a goat in the stall usually reserved for the Derby winner and spent the week lambasting Gregson. No such hostilities are expected this week, though Maryland Jockey Club officials could be forgiven for choking on their crab cakes when Frankel said Thursday that he would "rather win the Travers than the Preakness."

What's unusual about this year's defections is that they are not due to the fear factor that sometimes leads to small Preakness fields. Funny Cide ran a courageous Derby and is an admirable racehorse but rival camps aren't saying they've seen enough of him and are terrified to face him again. The Preakness could be a race crying out for a quality closer if one would only show up. Funny Cide and Peace Rules race near the front, as do Scrimshaw and Indian Express, if they stay out of early traffic. Yet all the Derby closers are staying away.

It's shaping up as a thin and watery Preakness with only one compelling storyline: Can Funny Cide repeat and head for Belmont with a chance at the Triple Crown? If Funny Cide does win this diluted Preakness, it will set up a couple of interesting challenges to recent history.

The connections of prospective Belmont opponents such as Empire Maker, Dynever, and Atswhatimtalknbout clearly think the 3-year-old title can still be earned without a stop in Baltimore, but it's not that easy to dethrone a Derby-Preakness winner. Of the 24 who have won those two races since 1936, the first year divisional titles were awarded, 20 were named champion 3-year-old at season's end. This group includes all 12 Derby-Preakness winners since 1971, even though nine of those lost the Belmont.

(If you want to win some bar bets, the only four Derby-Preakness winners who didn't win the 3-year-old title were Pensive, who lost to By Jimminy in 1944, and a trio in the late 1960's: Kauai King, Forward Pass, and Majestic Prince. They were overtaken by year's end, respectively, by Buckpasser, Stage Door Johnny, and Arts and Letters.)

If Funny Cide does win the Preakness, what price would he be against Empire Maker, Dynever, Atswhatimtalknbout, and other likely new shooters in the Belmont? Going all the way back to Sir Barton in 1919, 26 of the 27 Derby-Preakness winners who ran in the Belmont were favorites. (In fact, 22 of them were odds-on.) The only exception was Gallant Fox in 1930, who was 8-5 while runner-up Whichone was 6-5. That 8-5 price, the same that Charismatic was in 1999, is the highest ever for a Derby-Preakness winner in the Belmont, but it's easy to imagine Funny Cide being a longer price this year.

The lack of interest and participation in this Preakness may be a one-year aberration but it could become an ongoing problem given the increasing fragility of the breed and the training trend toward fewer and farther-spaced starts. It will be interesting to see whether Magna Entertainment removes one of this year's obstacles to a bigger Preakness field.

Thirteen 3-year-olds were entered in the $500,000 Lone Star Derby, which last year was moved from being a Kentucky Derby prep to falling between the Derby and Preakness. Dynever and perhaps a few others might be heading for Baltimore without it. The move has increased field size for the race, but now Magna owns both Lone Star and Pimlico and you have to wonder whether it really makes sense for Magna to offer a $500,000 race for 3-year-olds in Texas a week before the Preakness.