05/12/2003 11:00PM

Preakness weakness? It's the field

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LAS VEGAS - It's not just that the quality of the Kentucky Derby was such a disappointment: the mediocre Beyer Speed Figure of 108, the failure of Empire Maker to live up to expectations, the complete dud tossed in by Ten Most Wanted.

It's not just that few people see Funny Cide as a serious Triple Crown threat. After all, he was probably fourth best in the Derby, taking into consideration his trip.

It's not just that we won't see a rematch between Empire Maker and Funny Cide.

It's not just that we've been distracted by trainer Bobby Frankel and his seemingly endless waffling about whom he was going to run, and by the Kentucky stewards in the controversy about what additional persuaders jockey Jose Santos might or might not have been carrying in the Derby.

And it's not just that Indian Express has been scratched - a horse victimized by a disastrous trip in the Derby, and who could have injected some much-needed drama into Saturday's race.

All these developments have not helped to promote this year's Preakness. But the real problem is more fundamental: It's the weakness in the quality of the Preakness field.

Derby horses

Only four horses who ran in the Derby will be coming back in the Preakness. Because 16 of the last 17 Preakness winners ran their previous race in the Kentucky Derby, this is the first place to look when you start your handicapping.

Ten Cents a Shine improved dramatically to a 97 Beyer Figure in the Derby, so he probably deserves another shot at glory. But it would take an additional Beyer leap to make him a strong contender at Pimlico.

Scrimshaw also deserves another chance after a very tough trip at Churchill Downs. He could very well repeat one of his earlier Beyers of 101, or even the 104 he earned five races back. That could put him right in the mix.

Peace Rules ran a solid race in the Derby despite having to chase a reasonably fast pace. He has now earned Beyers of 105-104-105 in his last three races. If he can hold this form after only two weeks' rest, he is certainly a major factor.

Funny Cide benefited from an absolutely perfect trip in the Derby. His Beyer dropped only slightly from 110 in the Wood Memorial to a 108 at Churchill. If he can work out another ideal trip, he could certainly win again. But you have to take a stand against him.

New faces

Since 1987, only Red Bullet's win over Fusaichi Pegasus has broken the long string of Derby starters who have won the Preakness. And the Beyer Figures for this year's group of new faces do not bode well for a repeat of Red Bullet's performance. Red Bullet came into the Preakness with improving Beyers of 87-94-100-104. None of this year's new faces has yet shown anything quite so promising.

Also, Red Bullet was purposefully withheld from the Derby in order to set him up for a potential "ambush" of Fusaichi Pegasus in the Preakness. There was clear intent behind his Preakness appearance. That's not the case with any of this year's new faces. They're in the race as an afterthought, "taking a shot" when their connections saw how depleted the field would be.

Senor Swinger, Kissin Saint, and Midway Road have shown the most potential, with some Beyer figures in the mid- to upper-90's.

Champali and New York Hero have some Beyers in the mid-90's. They are nice horses, but they have not yet shown anything to indicate that they can finish close up in a Triple Crown event.

Foufa's Warrior has a high lifetime Beyer of only 91. Cherokee's Boy has recorded figures of 89-90-89-88-89-92. That's an amazingly consistent pattern, but it holds out little hope for the kind of dramatic improvement he will need to show if he's going to be a Preakness contender.

So this year's Preakness does not look like a high-quality renewal. But do not despair. The Belmont Stakes is only three weeks away - which lessens the appeal of the Preakness as a target race even more. The Belmont promises much greater drama, quality, and excitement. Empire Maker is being pointed to the Belmont, as is the brilliant but somewhat untested Dynever. And Atswhatimtalknbout, after his terrible trip in the Derby (not only blocked at a critical point, but much too far back early), is also scheduled to run next in New York.

Still, we do have the Preakness yet to run. And, who knows, maybe something - like a smashing Funny Cide victory - will develop on Saturday that will rescue this year's running from the mediocrity that afflicted the Kentucky Derby.