Even the novice handicappers at Pimlico ought to be able to dope out the winner of the Preakness Stakes, although they might do it for the wrong reasons.

Anyone who can read the Daily Racing Form will see that Linkage won his last start, the Blue Grass Stakes, by 5 1/2 lengths over Gato del Sol. Then Gato del Sol won the Kentucky Derby by 2 1/2 lengths over the horses who will be Linkage's principal rivals Saturday. Ergo, it's Linkage by eight lengths.

In fact, comparisons such as these usually prove irrelevant or misleading. (It could be pointed out that Linkage lost this winter to El Baba, who finished 11th in the Derby.) When Linkage defeated Gato del Sol, he did so under conditions that were optimal for him and somewhat disadvantageous for his rival.

Nevertheless, Linkage is the inescapable choice to win the 107th running of the Preakness, for a mulitiplicity of reasons. The foremost of them is his reliability. The overall records of most of his Preakness foes are so spotty that one cannot assume that any of them will run his best race. (Laser Light, who finished second at Churchill Downs, lost two of his four previous starts by 20 lengths.) But Linkage has been a paragon of consistency, winning eight times and finishing second twice in his 10-race career.

Henry Clark is an experienced trainer who ought to have the colt ready for a maximum performance Saturday. Months ago, Clark set two objectives for Linkage: the Blue Grass Stakes and the Preakness. In the Blue Grass, Linkage covered 1 1/8 miles in 1:48, which from the standpoint of speed handicappers was the best performance by any 3-year-old in America this year. If he duplicates this effort Saturday, he will win the Preakness.

The regrettable effect of Clark's decision to skip the Kentucky Derby and await the Preakness was to spoil a wonderful betting opportunity. At Churchill Downs, Linkage would have been 2 to 1, at least. But now that Gato del Sol's victory has shown the masses just how good Linkage is, he should be an odds-on favorite Saturday.

Thus, those of us who won't take 4 to 5 on a horse but consider betting on the Preakness to be a civic duty must look to the exacta. And the exacta may indeed offer some decent possibilities.

Of Linkage's seven rivals, Cut Away, Bold Style and Cupecoy's Joy don't figure at all. And I am further inclined to throw out two of the other horses who are widely considered contenders.

Aloma's Ruler will be heavily bet, on the basis of his Maryland origins and his impressive victory in the Withers Stakes at Aqueduct Saturday. But he has never raced farther than a mile and has never raced around two turns.

Water Bank rallied to finish fourth in the Kentucky Derby, but his performance looks much better on paper than it did on the track. While the other stretch-runners were circling the field and losing much ground, he managed to get through on the rail. If he couldn't beat Laser Light or Reinvested with that perfect trip, he certainly won't beat them Saturday.

Laser Light made an extraordinary stretch run to finish second at Churchill Downs. People who watch the replay of the Derby on television will barely be able to see him in the picture at the head of the stretch, but he zoomed past seven horses in the last furlong or so. If he were to score an upset in the Preakness, we could look back at the Derby films again and understand why he won.

But history shows that such powerful stretch runs in the Derby don't often translate into success at Pimlico. Often the performances are somewhat illusory: the stretch-runners are usually passing very tired horses who couldn't go a mile and one quarter. And while the Preakness does not favor speed horses to the extent that most people think, it is not a race for plodders like Laser Light.

It is a race for horses like Reinvested. In the Derby, he ran a race very much like Gato del Sol, making a strong wide move as he entered the final turn. He drew abreast of Gato del Sol in midstretch, but faded to finish third, a neck behind Laser Light.

Reinvested has a burst of speed that he can use whenever his jockey wants, and his half-mile workout in 46 3/5 today showed that he is ready to unleash it. His record does not suggest that he is good enough to beat the favorite, but it is good enough to make a Linkage-Reinvested exacta a decent investment Saturday.