05/11/2004 11:00PM

Time is ripe to defy conventional wisdom

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BOSTON - The message from the past two decades couldn't be clearer: Whatever you do, don't bet on any new faces in the Preakness.

Only one horse in the past 20 years has been able to win the Preakness without first running in the Kentucky Derby. We're all familiar by now with that startling bit of history. But the power of Derby runners actually goes much deeper than that. In the last 12 years, while newcomers have accounted for exactly half the starters in the Preakness (67 out of 134 runners), only five of them have finished second, and only three finished third. Clearly, if you like a horse in this year's Preakness who didn't run in this year's Derby, you're bucking a pretty strong historical trend. It's not totally hopeless. Just discouraging.

But I think this year will be different. The 3-year-old crop does not look that strong, and the top two finishers in the Derby look vulnerable. So, is there a new face who can outrun the conventional wisdom?

Water Cannon: He's this year's local hero. His supporters are looking for a repeat of Oliver's Twist, who finished second in the 1995 Preakness, or Magic Weisner, who finished second in 2002. But Oliver's Twist had at least earned Beyer Figures in the low 90's, and Magic Weisner had just run a 97 and 93 before his Preakness. Water Cannon's lifetime best is only an 88. He will need a miracle.

Little Matth Man: Much the same can be said of this horse. With a top Beyer of only 89, he can't be taken seriously in this field.

Sir Shackleton: With recent Beyers of 93 and 97 earned at much shorter distances, he's a long way from contending - although his early foot should keep the pace honest and help to set it up for his late-running stablemate, The Cliff's Edge.

Eddington: He peaked at Gulfstream with a 101 Beyer, and then fell back to a 90 in a troubled run in the Gotham. He improved to a 97 in the Wood Memorial and, although he wasn't visually impressive in that effort, he could continue to improve in the Preakness. His figure could cycle back up into contention, but probably not high enough for the top spot.

Rock Hard Ten: He's the key to the Preakness. After a wide chase throughout the Santa Anita Derby, he finished very well, earning a 103 Beyer - and that was only his third lifetime start. He should be able to improve on that figure in the Preakness. Certainly he's well within reach of the winning Beyer of 107 in this year's Kentucky Derby. He's the horse to beat on Saturday.

Lion Heart looks particularly vulnerable. He had a clear lead on a speed-favoring sloppy track in the Derby and couldn't hold on. His Beyer dropped to 103. He could be showing some wear and tear from earlier draining efforts in the San Rafael and the Blue Grass, and these longer distances might not be his strongest suit.

As for Smarty Jones, he has done nothing wrong and deserves to be the favorite in the Preakness. But he has also had a tough campaign, and if he regresses slightly from his recent Beyers (108-107-107) it would certainly not be a big surprise. There's some recent history working against him here. Smarty Jones will be the top figure on Saturday, and only three top Beyers have won the Preakness in the past 12 years - and two of those (Charismatic and Silver Charm) actually shared top-Beyer status with another runner. In addition, only three Derby winners have gone on to run higher Beyers in the Preakness - Real Quiet by 4 points, Silver Charm by 3 points, and Funny Cide by 6 points. In contrast, nine recent Derby winners have declined in the Preakness, four of them by 10 points or more. After his mediocre 107 Beyer in the Derby, Smarty Jones can't afford even a small backward step if he plans to keep his hopes alive for a Triple Crown.

Lion Heart and Smarty Jones benefited from a wet surface that favored front- runners in the Derby. As measured by their Beyer Figures, they underperformed. You have to try to beat them. That's why I'm looking for Rock Hard Ten to overcome recent historical trends and produce a mild upset in the Preakness. I will fill in the second and third slots with a variety of Derby runners: Smarty Jones, Imperialism, The Cliff's Edge, and Borrego - with a little Eddington thrown in.

I'm looking for a repeat of the 2000 Preakness, when newcomer Red Bullet ran away by nearly four lengths, with Derby runners Fusaichi Pegasus, Impeachment, and Captain Steve chasing him home.

That lonely bit of history could very well repeat itself.