Marylanders who revere the Preakness might choose to believe that the absence of the Kentucky Derby winner from Saturday's race is a freak event. After all, Spend a Buck was lured away by the chance to win $2.6 million in the Jersey Derby, and such circumstances might never arise again.

But Spend a Buck is only a small part of the Preakness' problems. His absence is but a symptom of the ill health of this 110-year-old event.

If Garden State Park had offered a multimillion-dollar purse for the Jersey Derby on the first Saturday in May, the track wouldn't have taken the best horses away from the Kentucky Derby. Nor could Garden State's dollars affect the Belmont Stakes.

But Garden State owner Robert Brennan knew he could challenge the Preakness, because the race's prestige and importance already had begun to decline sharply in the eyes of breeders and owners. In some circles, Pimlico's big attraction invites out-and-out derision.

"The Preakness," said Bill Oppenheim, editor of the Kentucky-based newsletter Racing Update, "doesn't belong in the Triple Crown. It's the wrong distance, the wrong track, the wrong kind of race. It shouldn't be considered a classic race. It should be just what the Jersey Derby is -- a prep for the Belmont."

Jeff Siegel, editor of a California racing newsletter, fully shares this view. "From the standpoint of breeders," he said, "winning the Preakness means very little. What happened with Spend a Buck may have just broken the ice. In a few years, you might find the Jersey Derby is the second jewel of the Triple Crown."

The views of these journalists might be dismissed as polemics, but John Finney, president of the company that conducts the Saratoga Yearling Sales, is no polemicist. He is a Marylander and a friend of Pimlico's management. Yet last week, when he was asked what the impact of a Preakness victory would be on the value of Spend a Buck, compared with a victory in the Jersey Derby, he had to answer candidly that there would be no difference at all. That's what the Preakness' 110 years of tradition have come to.

Unlike other sports, horse racing has no "official" championship events. Races evolve into classics because racing people choose to treat them as such and point their top horses for them. They can lose their status easily if owners and trainers change their view of the race's significance.

There are plenty of factors that make a race important -- its longevity, its purse money, its public popularity, its position on the racing calendar. But for horsemen, the most important factor is a race's value as a true measure of horses' quality. Does a victory in the race almost automatically certify a horse as an outstanding runner, a significant and potentially valuable stud prospect?

A horse who wins the Champagne Stakes or the Jockey Club Gold Cup or the Belmont Stakes inherits great prestige because he joins such an illustrious list of past winners; year after year, these races are won by champions. The same can't be said for the Preakness.

Many great horses have won this race on the way to a sweep of the Triple Crown, of course. But what does a victory in the Preakness mean by itself? Since 1970, eight horses have won the "middle jewel" alone among the Triple Crown races: Gate Dancer, Deputed Testamony, Aloma's Ruler, Codex, Elocutionist, Master Derby, Bee Bee Bee and Personality.

It hardly is an illustrious list. None of these colts was a great racehorse; none went on to significantly greater glory after the Preakness. None went to stud with any acclaim, and none distinguished himself as a sire. In fact, not one of the horses on the list commands a stud fee greater than $25,000.

When Pimlico General Manager Chick Lang was arguing that Spend a Buck should run in the Preakness because a victory would so greatly enhance his stud value, most racing people knew otherwise. Siegel addressed this with a caustic question in his newsletter: "By the way, got any (breeding) seasons available to Master Derby, Bee Bee Bee, Candy Spots or Deputed Testamony? The Preakness really made them as sires, didn't it?"

Any racing fan who frequents Pimlico can understand why the Preakness has not been a definitive test of horses' ability; races there rarely are. The racing strip habitually favors horses with early speed, and sometimes this tendency is compounded by a bias that gives an insuperable edge to horses on the rail.

Never has there been a flukier race than the 1984 Preakness. The rail at Pimlico was a virtual superhighway, and the horses who got on it won all the races that day. In the Preakness, the horses who ran most of the race on the rail finished one-two-three. Swale and Pine Circle were parked outside most of the way and wound up seventh and fifth. When the same group met again for an honest test in the Belmont Stakes, Swale and Pine Circle ran one-two.

In recent years, more and more trainers have become convinced that the Preakness is not a fair, true race and they have bypassed it, even after their horses ran well in the Kentucky Derby. In 1982, Derby winner Gato del Sol stayed away from Pimlico because trainer Eddie Gregson knew his stretch- runner would have little chance on this track.

Caveat skipped the 1983 Preakness after his third-place finish in the Derby and awaited the Belmont, which he won. His trainer, Woody Stephens, did the same this year after Stephan's Odyssey finished second at Churchill Downs. Even with the Preakness field shaping up as a weak one, Stephens gave little thought to running here. "The Preakness isn't his type of race," Stephens said.

No other major U.S. race is thought of this way, as favoring a certain type of horse so much that it's not worth even showing up if you're the wrong type.

This perception of the Preakness isn't quite unanimous, though; Chick Lang, Pimlico's general manager, won't recognize it. But Lang does not acknowledge that there is anything wrong with his race or his track. He is responsible for building the Preakness into a great spectacle that lures crowds of 80,000, and he still thinks that the Pimlico bias is a figment of the imagination of a few degenerate horseplayers.

His attitude toward the nature of his racing strip is reminiscent of his attitude toward Pimlico's old Visumatic Timer. In the 1960s and early 1970s, the electric timer was chronically unreliable; Pimlico's six-furlong track record is still credited to a filly who never ran that fast. But Lang stonewalled all criticism -- until the timer misfired in the Preakness and deprived Secretariat of a rightful track record.

Maybe the absence of Spend a Buck and Stephan's Odyssey and the widespread sentiment that a victory in the Preakness wouldn't confer everlasting prestige on the winner will jolt Lang into an awareness that his beloved race is in big trouble.

The remedies don't take much imagination. To entice the best 3-year-olds, Pimlico needs to offer a big purse for the Preakness -- maybe $1 million -- and join with Churchill Downs and Belmont Park to put up a giant bonus for winning the Triple Crown. Moreover, Pimlico officials need to deal honestly with the problems inherent in their racing surfaces and try to find a way to make the track's races a fairer test of horses' ability.

If they don't take some aggressive action, the Preakness is going to deteriorate into a second-class race. In fact, the quality of Saturday's field would suggest that the process already has begun.