Preakness preview

May 17, 2005 3:46 AM

It’s easier to teach a horse to be potty-trained than it is to win the Triple Crown.

That’s why there have only been 11 since its inception in 1919 and none since Affirmed in 1987. That’s a string of 26 years. In the last eight years, six horses have had the opportunity for immortality with a Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont sweep, but each — Smarty Jones, Funny Cide, War Emblem, Charismatic, Real Quiet and Silver Charm — failed in the Belmont.

Currently, Giacomo is the only horse on the planet with a chance to capture racing’s most elusive prize. But despite his jaw-dropping victory in the Kentucky Derby, Giacomo has been made a 20-1 longshot to win the Triple Crown by some Las Vegas oddsmakers.

Moreover, the Kentucky Derby winner won’t even be favored in the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on Saturday.

That distinction will fall to the consistent Afleet Alex, third in the Derby, beaten a length by Giacomo at 50-1 and runner-up Closing Argument at 71-1.

Whether Afleet Alex wins remains to be seen, but the first three finishers in the Derby appear proper choices in the Preakness, especially with the defection of Derby favorite Bellamy Road, presently sidelined with a shin injury.

A word of caution: Bobby Frankel wouldn’t be running High Limit back after his last-place finish in the Derby if the horse wasn’t right. He looked like a million in the Derby post parade but suffered a cut on his leg in the race. Expect dramatic improvement.

But I digress.

How did Giacomo register the second-biggest upset in Derby history? Prior to his big win, he was niggling at purse money with seconds and thirds. So, the son of Holy Bull was a relatively fresh horse coming into the Run for the Roses, according to Richard Matlow, a successful if unsung trainer in Southern California for 42 years.

"Horatio Luro said it years ago: ”˜Don’t squeeze the lemon dry,’" Matlow said. "That’s why Giacomo won. Although he’d been running seconds and thirds, he hadn’t peaked yet. I think it’s important for a horse not to race too hard a month out from the Derby. Two months out is a different story. Then you have no excuse. They say Bellamy Road won easy (in the Wood Memorial), but when a horse runs in track record time he’s not running easy, I don’t care what they say. It takes something out of a horse."

Some folks call it a "bounce" and Matlow subscribes to that theory, especially when a horse wins by 17 ½ lengths as Bellamy Road did in the Wood, with races only weeks apart.

"Years ago a rider would have been strangled for doing something like that," Matlow said. "Those old riders won by a neck, a half a length but they wouldn’t win by 17 lengths. There’s no reason to do that when the race you really want to win is just a month down the road."

There are other considerations.

"A lot of those horses had never run on the Churchill Downs surface so you don’t know if they’re going to like it or not," said Matlow, a native of the San Fernando Valley who turns 63 on May 28. "Bellamy Road never had run at Churchill, although great horses shouldn’t have to take their surface with them.

"When Citation won the Triple Crown (in 1948), they were running against the same horses every trip. Now trainers are passing the Preakness and waiting for the Belmont after they’ve lost the Derby. You’ve got to be a good horse to win the Derby, then run back in two weeks and again in three weeks (for the Belmont), although Citation won a race (Jersey Stakes) in between his Triple Crown sweep. It’d hard to do. That’s why there hasn’t been a Triple Crown winner in 27 years."

Well, not quite yet. At least not until Giacomo loses on Saturday. THE HOMESTRETCH: My Preakness picks: Afleet Alex, High Limit, Giacomo and Wilko ”¦ Trainer Bill Spawr on his friend, John Sherriffs, who saddled Giacomo to his Derby upset: "I’ve known John since 1978. We were in adjacent barns at Bay Meadows when we first started training and we’ve been friends since. Winning the Derby won’t change him." On Sherriffs’ peculiar personality: "He was on a pony one morning taking a set of horses out for a work and an outrider told him he had to wear a helmet, although trainers don’t have to wear helmets and John knew that. The next day he came out wearing a flower pot on his head. The security guy got ticked off and issued him a citation but it was dismissed."”¦ The Southern California jockey colony continues its dramatic metamorphosis. Not only has it lost Laffit Pincay Jr., Eddie Delahoussaye and Chris McCarron the past two years, Gary Stevens and Mike Smith have moved to Kentucky, while Kent Desormeaux currently is riding in the Orient. Pat Valenzuela is expected to be sidelined two months recovering from a concussion and a torn ligament in his right knee suffered at the start of a race at Hollywood Park on May 8. "Their absences will only impact this meet," said agent Richie Silverstein, who represents Martin Pedroza and apprentice Freddy Fong Jr. "I don’t think Stevens will be back for Del Mar but Smith, Desormeaux and Patrick will. Hollywood has always been unusual in the sense that most top riders are out of town on Saturdays. This meet has put Pedroza, Felipe Martinez and the bug boys on the map. But no matter how well they do at Hollywood, it doesn’t matter once Del Mar opens because those riders have to start from scratch again. And the horses that win the last month at Hollywood have no chance at Del Mar. Why? Because at the end of the Hollywood meet we’re piecing races together and horses that were running for $12,500 and $16,000 early in the meet can win towards the end for $25,000 and $32,000. When they get to Del Mar, trainers are dropping horses from $62,500 to $32,000 because owners there want to see their horses win. When you have an inflated horse on the raise against a horse dropping down that’s legit, you’ve got no chance."”¦ Don’t look for Dream of Summer any time soon. The surprise winner of the Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap has been sent to the ranch for a freshener by trainer Juan Garcia.