05/21/2001 12:00AM

Who can bounce back best?


BALTIMORE - Is the Preakness the most difficult race to win of the Triple Crown classics?

Probably not. The Kentucky Derby must be the most difficult, because of the usual size of the field, the demanding preparation that precedes it, and the stressful background of Derby Day, with its huge crowd, noise level and excitement.

Having said that, and despite the fact that 16 horses won both the Derby and Preakness without having swept the Triple Crown, we submit that the Preakness is an incredibly difficult achievement to bring off.

The two-week interval between the Derby and Preakness, coupled with the requirement for the horses to travel some 700 miles, is a challenge to their health and dispositions. Yes, in earlier days there was only a one-week interval, and, occasionally, less than that. But that was in an era when the concept of the Triple Crown wasn't as well established.

It was also a time when the Thoroughbred was made of sturdier stock. The training regimens of those horses of yesteryear wouldn't be believed today. When we first started covering the classics, some 45 years ago, most of the Derby horses participating in the Preakness worked a full mile between starts.

Today the routine is usually a breeze of a half-mile or five furlongs, and that seems to suffice.

The key question about the Derby with respect to the Preakness is how much the Derby takes out of the horses who go on to Pimlico. John Ward, the trainer of Monarchos, discussed the subject the other day.

"The Derby invariably takes a lot out of the horses going on to the Preakness," Ward said. "You could see it very clearly last year. This year, the Derby didn't seem to take quite as much out of the horses. Perhaps it was because the track was faster than usual, and the horses skipped along, or perhaps they started with more gas in their tanks. This might be a better crop of 3-year-olds."

In other years, you might have been tempted to put the emphasis in the Preakness on those horses who disappointed badly in the Derby. Hansel came back from a very disappointing race at Churchill Downs to win the Preakness and the Belmont quite handily. Risen Star also came back from a defeat in the Derby to win the Preakness and Belmont. It seems likely that we can expect to see much-improved races Saturday from Point Given and A P Valentine. We are somewhat less certain that Congaree can improve on his fine showing in the Derby. Despite the expected improvement, however, of the other Derby horses, our Preakness choice is Monarchos. He seems to have great stability of form, and his physical condition is one of his most attractive points. We think he can withstand the rigors of classic racing in excellent form and expect him to prove that point again this weekend.