05/07/2004 12:00AM

Why not take Baltimore shot?


NEW YORK - Having been spectacularly wrong about everything going into this year's Kentucky Derby - my five selections ran a sterling 5-7-8-9-12 - it's not surprising that my predictive powers proved equally sharp in the moments after the race. My first thought as the Derby field splashed home was that there would now be a fat field for the Preakness, since the sloppy track had probably kept many horses from running a representative race, or at least had furnished every loser with a plausible excuse.

Instead, we're looking at possibly the shortest Preakness lineup in more than a decade, with as few as four of the 18 who ran for the roses joining three new shooters to chase the black-eyed Susans.

To suggest that many Derby horses did not fire their best shots implies no criticism of Smarty Jones. He is an excellent racehorse who ran an admirable Derby and may very well have won the race had the track been dry. Still, to say that everyone behind him ran his race strains credulity.

Every single one of Smarty Jones's opponents ran a Beyer Speed Figure that was lower than his career best, and 16 of the 17 ran a lower figure than they did in their final Derby prep. The way the race was run, with each quarter-mile slower than the previous one as a mud-caked pack floundered behind the leaders, had the look of many a race run in the slop: A few horses handled the surface and the rest were beaten by distended margins in efforts that should not automatically be held against them.

The Cliff's Edge ran down Lion Heart fair and square at nine furlongs in the Blue Grass, then finished 9 3/4 lengths behind him in the Derby. Borrego and Pro Prado, who were closing ground on Smarty Jones to be beaten 1 1/2 and three lengths in the Arkansas Derby, finished 16 and 20 lengths behind him in Kentucky. Castledale beat Imperialism by two lengths in the Santa Anita Derby and finished 19 lengths behind him on Derby Day. It's safe to say this wasn't the greatest group of horses ever assembled for a Derby, but it's way too early to write off everyone but the winner, and common sense dictates that a lot of horses simply didn't fire.

The recent history of the Preakness suggests that a non-effort in Louisville can be a prelude to victory in Baltimore. The Preakness winner has emerged from the Derby 19 times in the last 20 years. Seven of them had won the Derby, but another eight had finished fourth or worse: Gate Dancer (fourth in 1984), Tank's Prospect (seventh in 1985), Snow Chief (11th in 1986), Hansel (10th in 1991), Pine Bluff (fifth in 1992), Tabasco Cat (sixth in 1994), Louis Quatorze (16th in 1996), and Point Given (fifth in 2001.) Ten others who ran fifth or worse in the Derby returned to run second or third in the Preakness, including Brian's Time, Mister Frisky, and Skip Away.

You might think even more would try for a similar rebound this year, not only because of the slop in the Derby but also because so many of the also-rans entered this Derby with just two preps or off unusually long layoffs. Most of those tradition-buckers ran as if they needed another race. Well, now they should be tight enough, but instead most are headed back to the sidelines.

You can admire and respect Smarty Jones and still find a more interesting bet than taking 4-5 on him in the Preakness. I am delighted to keep hearing that Lion Heart, Rock Hard Ten, Eddington, and Imperialism will be the next choices in the Preakness betting, because that means a bigger price on the horse I will be giving another chance: The Cliff's Edge.

Had the Blue Grass been a furlong farther, it's reasonable to think he would have beaten Lion Heart as decisively as Smarty Jones did in the Derby, and if you thought he might react poorly to that career-best effort, he's supposed to be over that by now. He reportedly threw two shoes in the Derby, and he still passed more than half the field when he moved up from 17th to fifth during the ninth furlong of the Derby before flattening out.

He may not be a more likely winner than Smarty Jones, but at five times the price or better, I'll take my chances.