Iron Constitution, a colt with an iron constitution, turned a sterling Preakness picture to tin by nosing out Cormorant in the Withers Mile today at Aqueduct.

Cormorant, sent off the 3-to-10 favorite by the crowd of 30,639, had won seven races after losing the first start of his career last summer. He was generally, regarded as the strongest challenger for Kentucky Derby hero Seattle Stew Saturday at Pimlico.

Iron Constitution had help in fashioning his victory today, at 35 to 1. Affiliate, ridden by Angel Cordero, ran head and head with Cormorant until the early stretch. No sooner had Cormorant drawn out to a half-length lead than Iron Constitution, a rangy bay, closed briskly on the outside under Jorge Velasquez.

Leaving the 16th pole, Iron Constitution appeared ready to draw away to a length victory - only to see Cormorant fight back gamely along the inside and just miss, in the final strides, regaining the lead.

"No excuses," a disappointed Danny Wright declared upon dismounting from the favorite. "Maybe Cormorant had been away a little too long. It was more than a month between races for him, so maybe he was a little rusty, even though he'd worked so good at Laurel.

"I'm confident Cormorant will run better in the Preakness," Wright added.

Cormorant will have to improve sharply from the Withers if he is to menace undefeated Seattle Slew in the second leg of the Triple Crown series. He missed the Derby because of a viral infection.

Iron Constitution required 1:37 for today's mile. The fractions were :23, :45 4/5 and 1:10 4/5. Where was a strong head wind confronting the leaders during the long run from the aqueduct chute to the far turn. Speed failed to hold up on the slow racing strip all day long.

Still, Iron Constitution is not about to be canonized as a 3-year-old of unending promise. The son of Iron Ruler had finished eighth in a division of the Florida Derby, fifth in the Flamingo, sixth in the Gotham (10 lengths behind Cormorant) and sixth in the Wood Memorial.

He had started 10 times prior to the Withers, more than any other horse in the original field of 10. Cruise On In and Hey hey J.P. were scratched.

"We're not sure about what our plans will be, now," trainer Tommy Root said during the winner's circle ceremonies. "Frankly, we're delightfully surprised by the result. We'll make a decision about the Preakness early in the week, but the Jersey Derby had been in our thinking."

Iron Constitution is owned by Florida furniture manufacturer Harry Mangurian, a man who likes to be represented in the classics. Look for Iron Constitution to start in the Preakness.

Cormorant returns to his Laurel headquarters Sunday morning. His trainer, Jimmy Simpson, has been pointing the bay ridgling for the Preakness for nearly a month. This loss is not expected to change those plans.

The tote board in the infield looked a little out of whack following the Withers. Iron Constitution paid $73 to win but only $9 to place and $3.40 to show. Heavy wagering on Cormorant in the place and show pools caused the sharp drop-off.

Affiliate held on for third place, five lengths behind Cormorant. P.R. Man was fourth.

Cordero's taking Affiliate on the lead undoubtedly had a bearing on the outcome. That colt had finished second in the Hollywood Derby before being ninth in the Kentucky Derby without showing any speed.

"He broke good, so I had him running from the start," Cordero declared.

Wright said he "had to go (to the lead) sooner than I wanted to" with Cormorant. "Being forced to run every step of the way took a little out of him, but he never gave up. He's a game horse," the jockey emphasized.