05/12/2004 11:00PM

Preakness Stakes analysis

Email

Besides considerable talent, perhaps the most critical component that enabled Smarty Jones to become the first undefeated winner of the Kentucky Derby since Seattle Slew is his positional speed. That speed helps Smarty Jones avoid trouble and work out good trips, and he may work out a perfect trip in the Preakness.

As he did when he finished second in the Derby, Lion Heart figures to go right to the lead. But Lion Heart may be pressed early by Derby Trial winner Sir Shackleton, who has sprint speed and who will be stretching out to two turns for the first time. Smarty Jones could well be positioned in the garden spot just behind a pressured pace. When a prolific winner like Smarty Jones also gets a perfect set-up, that makes him hard to beat.

I would feel better about Rock Hard Ten if he had had a race in the last six weeks, but even after only three career starts, it is clear he has uncommon ability. Despite the fact that the Santa Anita Derby was Rock Hard Ten's first loss, he probably was best in that race, and he was going to finish in front of Imperialism even if he didn't foul him. Imperialism subsequently flattered Rock Hard Ten with his respectable third in the Derby.

Eddington is like Rock Hard Ten in a couple of ways. Eddington was also denied a starting spot in the Derby due to insufficient graded stakes earnings and he also has substantial potential yet to be realized. Like Smarty Jones, Eddington figures to sit a nice trip, and he could be coming up to a career-best performance.

The Cliff's Edge, whose Preakness status at this writing was uncertain, probably isn't as good as he seemed when he got a 111 Beyer Speed Figure for winning the Blue Grass, but he also isn't as ineffective as he seemed finishing a distant fifth in the Derby, when he lost both front shoes. If the pace is hot, he can certainly get involved late.

I have only respect for Lion Heart. But he had to deliver gut-wrenching efforts in all three of his starts this year, and with the chance of him being pressured early, I wouldn't be surprised if he took a step backward here.Smarty Jones is the logical choice to add the Preakness to his impressive victory in the Kentucky Derby. The undefeated phenom already dominated most of these two weeks ago in the Derby, owns a decided Beyer edge over the new shooters, and hasn't given any reason to believe he might regress off his last. Unfortunately, the pride of Philly is now a national celebrity and will be bet accordingly - and from a handicapping standpoint, he is just not worth a play at 6-5 or less. So who has the best chance of springing an upset? To answer that question, we think back to Derby Week. Nobody trained any better in Kentucky than Smarty, but the one individual who came the closest was Rock Hard Ten. An awesome-looking colt, Rock Hard Ten proved his class in the Santa Anita Derby, and the way he has flourished since leaving California indicates that further improvement can be expected. Obviously his relative lack of experience is a big concern, but that risk might be worth the reward at a price expected to be in the vicinity of 5-1. Borrego is a stretch-running type who lost all chance when rain struck prior to the Derby. He has the running style to fit the profile of this race and could prove a viable longshot if the pace gets too hot. Lion Heart ran a huge race in the Derby and could be dangerous again if allowed to shake loose on the lead - but he might not have that luxury with Sir Shackleton and Water Cannon in the lineup. The Cliff's Edge figured to be a major player and perhaps even my top choice if healthy. Unfortunately, recent foot woes have severely tempered my enthusiasm for the Blue Grass winner if he does start. Eddington is an extremely talented but still somewhat immature colt whose failure to change leads properly through the stretch may have cost him victories in the Gotham and Wood. Can contend on his best, but cannot afford a similar transgression against stiffer opposition this time around. Imperialism ran a visually impressive race in the Derby, but I'm not convinced he'll repeat that effort at what figures to be a relatively short price on Saturday.The two-week turnaround time works in favor of Lion Heart. Going into Saturday the weeks between starts of his current form cycle are 11-5-3-2, an 11-week freshening after the Hollywood Futurity, five weeks from the San Rafael to the Blue Grass, three weeks to the Derby, and two weeks to the Preakness.

For Smarty Jones the pattern is a busier 8-3-3-3-2. A shorter eight-week respite after the Count Fleet, and then three races spaced three weeks apart.

The Derby was also Lion Heart's first experience with a wet track. He was capable of a Beyer Speed Figure of 110 in the Blue Grass, despite a tough trip racing wide around the clubhouse turn. It is entirely possible he may bounce back with something in the 110 range.

Lion Heart never runs a bad race. He figures to be in front turning for home. He should be a bettable 3-1.

There is no rational way to knock Smarty Jones other than to point out both graded stakes victories came on wet tracks - one of them against suspect company, and the other in a Derby where everyone from the fifth finisher on down failed to fire. With Gone West as a grandsire, and his dam's side descending from Smile and In Reality, Smarty Jones has exceptionally strong wet-track lineage, and it's fair to say it was an edge at crunch time.

Can Smarty Jones win? Sure - he has never lost! But after gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated he figures to be overbet, and the second choice has a better top figure anyway.

A line through the Derby's third-place finsher, Imperialism, further corroborates the notion Rock Hard Ten is among the best 3-year-olds in the nation. Any colt who wins his first two starts in hand and then improves his speed figure off a step-up to major stakes company is displaying unmistakable talent.

With that initial stakes skirmish under his belt, and five weeks off, there's no telling what kind of improvement Rock Hard Ten might still have in store. At the very least, he projects to supply an additional pace-pressuring presence on the far turn, something that never materialized in the Derby.

And if that heats things to a full boil and the pace collapses, here comes Imperialism.Borrego was gaining on Smarty Jones late in the Arkansas Derby and finished second, beaten by just 1 1/2 lengths. Coming into the Kentucky Derby, he looked like an improving, dangerous longshot. Unfortunately, he didn't run his race over the sloppy track that day and finished 10th. Under the circumstances, I have no problem with giving him the benefit of the doubt in the Preakness. He signaled his readiness for this race with a four-furlong workout in 46 seconds, the fastest of 53 at the distance and a full second quicker than the second-best time, on May 10 at Churchill. I expect him to benefit from a comfortable trip while rating behind an honest pace in this race. Factor in attractive longshot odds that might produce a win payoff in the neighborhood of $30, and he gets the call as my top selection. Closers create their own trouble with their running style. Imperialism suffered through the type of troubled trip any realist would expect him to encounter in an 18-horse field in the Derby. With the solid race he ran while finishing third in Louisville and the smaller field he'll see today, he can find his way into this exacta.

Smarty Jones is clearly the one to beat, but with so much publicity since his Derby win, he is unlikely to offer a fair price. Odds issues aside, he is overdue for regression, and what better time for it than two weeks after a hard race? I'll see if I can beat him to win and in some of the exotic slots.

Lion Heart had every chance to win the Derby while loose on the lead on a surface that a number of his opponents did not like. He was unable to hold on to win that race, so why take ordinary odds on him to win today? Rock Hard Ten did not have the best trip in the Santa Anita Derby and deserves a long look. Nevertheless, his reputation is bigger than his achievements have been so far, and he may be overbet by wiseguys looking for a fresh face to play against the favorite. Eddington will have to improve upon his Gotham and Wood performances to finish in the money. If The Cliff's Edge runs, concerns about his foot problem make him a dicey play.Forget the excuses. The undefeated Smarty Jones doesn't need them. He won the Kentucky Derby as much the best, running down Lion Heart, the lone speed. A sloppy track and troubled trips may have compromised some of his opponents, but to the credit of Smarty Jones, he makes his own luck. He has the tactical speed to gain a favorable position, and has handled every track on which he has raced.

Derby winners have a favorable history in the Preakness, with five of the last seven Derby winners also taking the second leg of the Triple Crown. Examining a larger sample dating back to 1990, they are 5-3-1 in 13 starts. They did well for an obvious reason: they won the Derby, the deepest and most talent-filled race for 3-year-olds.

Surprisingly, many were underbet in the Preakness. The last five Derby winners that won the Preakness returned average odds of 3.74-1, meaning a $2 bet on each Derby winner since 1990 would have yielded a profit of over $21.

Smarty Jones won't be 3-1 - not after appearing in Sports Illustrated and winning over fans across the country. He legitimately deserves to start at 7-5 - or less.

Lion Heart may be the forgotten horse in the Preakness - simply because he isn't a new shooter or a horse coming off a troubled trip. He had every chance in the Derby and was beaten by a superior horse. But if Smarty Jones is off his game, or Lion Heart simply handles the two-week turnaround better, he might turn the tables. He seems likely to start above his 3-1 morning-line odds.

Rock Hard Ten is short on experience, not talent. Non-Derby starters have a poor history in the Preakness, but he may buck that trend. He sat out the Derby because he lacked sufficient graded earnings caused from being disqualified from second to third in the Santa Anita Derby - not because his connections felt he wasn't Derby quality.

Imperialism is the hot horse following a troubled third-place finish in both the Santa Anita and Kentucky derbies. His trouble in the Kentucky Derby was so obvious and well documented that he will probably be an underlay.