05/16/2007 11:00PM

Sentimental favorite Chelokee looks much best

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BALTIMORE, Md. - The reunion, should it take place, will be bittersweet. It's odds-on to happen, though. A year ago, Barbaro was the 1-2 favorite to win the Preakness Stakes, but tragedy struck. On Saturday, the ill-fated colt's trainer, Michael Matz, will return to Pimlico with his best 3-year-old of this year, Chelokee, in a stakes race renamed to honor the memory of Barbaro.

Should Chelokee win, Matz will be joined in the winner's circle by Roy and Gretchen Jackson, the owners of Barbaro, who will present the trophy to the winning connections. That's a group photo that was expected to happen here a year ago. The symbolism will be powerful.

The Preakness obviously is the biggest race of the day, but the Barbaro will be a compelling sideshow.

The Barbaro, a $100,000 race at 1o1/16 miles, was formerly known as the Sir Barton Stakes, named for the first winner of the Triple Crown. It was renamed for Barbaro last Dec. 20, exactly seven months after he severely fractured his right rear leg at Pimlico. Barbaro was euthanized on Jan. 29 from the complications of laminitis.

"Barbaro touched our hearts and reminded us of what an incredible athlete and tremendous inspiration he was, and still is, to legions of fans world-wide," said Joe De Francis, the chief executive officer of the Maryland Jockey Club, which runs Pimlico.

The Barbaro Stakes concludes several days of events honoring Barbaro. On Thursday, Barbaro's jockey, Edgar Prado, and his surgeon at the University of Pennsylvania's New Bolton Center, Dr. Dean Richardson, were given the 2007 Special Award of Merit during the Alibi Breakfast at Pimlico.

"I'm still somewhat embarrassed to speak in public about what eventually became a really sad story," Richardson said.

On Friday, Pimlico was scheduled to sell books and prints of Barbaro. And on Saturday, an Air Force elite parachute team is scheduled to drop in carrying a flag designed with the colors of the Jacksons' Lael Stable.

The coda to all this would be a victory by Chelokee in the Barbaro. He will be heavily favored. Chelokee finished third in the Florida Derby in his last start, and at one point was under serious consideration for the Derby and the Preakness before Matz decided to take an easier route to upcoming major races.

No one else in the Barbaro has finished in the money in a graded stakes race.

The main threat to Chelokee would appear to be Soaring By, who was an impressive allowance winner at Gulfstream before a dull try on Polytrack at Keeneland.

But Soaring By's trainer, Todd Pletcher, on Thursday said he was heavily leaning toward running Soaring By on Sunday at Belmont Park in the Grade 2, $200,000 Peter Pan Stakes.

"One scratch from the Barbaro would definitely make him a runner there," Pletcher said. "Let me know if Chelokee scratches."