05/20/2001 11:00PM

Richly Blended brings right mix

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BALTIMORE - He's the speed of the Preakness.

There was a lot of speed in the Kentucky Derby, touching off a record pace that saw a first half-mile in 44.86 seconds. The leaders, and most of those who flirted with the lead, paid the price, smoothing the way for Monarchos's stretch punch. Richly Blended isn't the only speed in the Preakness but he may be the quickest, and the most likely to go to the front at the start. The reaction to such a development is what the Preakness will be all about.

Richly Blended, by the young Afleet stallion Rizzi, has had elements of the spectacular about him from the outset.

Unraced at 2 because of sore shins and other ailments that are part of the growing process, he made a memorable debut at Laurel on Feb. 10, winning off by 15 lengths and earning an eye-catching Beyer number of 103.

Very little that has happened since that extraordinary maiden effort that has been negative for him. Richly Blended won his second start by almost eight lengths, and then, despite his lack of seasoning, captured the Gotham Mile at Aqueduct by more than five lengths with a Beyer rating of 101.

Four weeks later he sustained his first and only defeat in the Wood Memorial, finishing third behind Congaree and Monarchos. As usual, he set the pace and his half-mile in 46 seconds seemed comfortable enough, but when jockey Rick Wilson asked him to keep up with the challenges of Congaree and Monarchos, he couldn't do it.

"Perhaps he went into the Wood a little fresh," trainer Ben Perkins Jr. speculated. "It didn't seem to affect him because he came back to win the Withers Mile by more than four lengths. He's trained well in the interim and we think he has a chance to win the Preakness if the circumstances are favorable."

Watch the fractions Saturday to get a line on Richly Blended's prospects. If he can get away with a first half-mile in 47 seconds, he has a chance of carrying his speed. Nineteen years ago, in 1982, a speedy colt named Aloma's Ruler, winner of the Withers that year, led all the way to win the Preakness after a half-mile in 48. Linkage, who won Keeneland's Blue Grass Stakes and skipped the Kentucky Derby, was the 1-2 favorite under Bill Shoemaker. He was well placed off the pace, but when the time came to express himself, he didn't have enough to say.

A key factor in every Preakness is the reaction of the participants to the events of the Kentucky Derby.

Often, when the Derby pace has been fast and several of the horses were burned by racing close to the speed, they will seek to avoid a repetition at Pimlico, aiding the leader. With no pressure on him, the leader will march home, though the distance may not be ideal for him.

It doesn't happen often. The Preakness is often described as a race for speed horses, but in the past 18 runnings, the only horse to win on the lead was Louis Quatorze in 1996. He couldn't handle the track at Churchill Downs and finished 16th in the Kentucky Derby, but he made amends at Old Hilltop in the Preakness.

Despite these statistics, Richly Blended comes with much to recommend him, including his disposition.

"He'll do whatever is asked of him," Perkins said. "He will go a half-mile in the mornings in 46 but he will also go in 52, if you want. He gives his rider a lot of options and that is always helpful."

Richly Blended is in good hands. The son of a highly resourceful and successful horseman, Perkins is a graduate of the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. He has 20 years of racing experience behind him, and comes recommended by a number of solid developments among his runners. One of them, Storm Tower, a Wood Memorial winner, was the fastest horse he trained until Richly Blended came along. Richly Blended has an opportunity this weekend to create a new point of reference.