They start work, three or four of them, in the morning of the third Friday in May. They have two dozen bottles of black shoe polish, with the built-in daubers, and they have steady hands.

The job cannot be finished until Saturday morning - not too early Saturday morning. The black polish must be dry in the central seed pods - the "eyes" - of the 5,000 yellow daisies, or marguerites, before they can carried into the paddock at Pimlico. Late in the afternoon they will be the blanket laid across the withers of the horse that wins the Preakness; they will be the laurel that makes him one with Man O'War and Native Dancer and Bold Ruler; and they will be phony, because the blackeyed susan, Maryland's state flower these sixty years and totem of the Preakness, pertinaciously refuses to fructify in May. July, even June, or later in the fall, but in May, no way.

"Vanderbilt and I tried everything," said florist Jerry Geary, the Pimlico neighbor who has been blackening daisies' eyes since Citation's 1948 Preakness. It is not such an arrant name-drop. Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the innovative young millionaire who led Pimlico between 1936 and 1952, wouldn't believe black-eyed susans couldn't be obliged to bloom at Preakness time.

"So we tried to force them in greenhouses," Geary recalled, "for several years. We did shade, heat, light, water, dry . . .Once we got four or five of them to bloom and made a corsage for the wife of the winning owner. Otherwise, I just wasted a greenhouse."

So it was back to the Kiwi. "Or Esquire," Geary said. "Doesn't matter what brand, as long as it has a dauber. With the new glue it's not so hard - not as bad as when we had to wire each one."