It took Howard Cosell to find something positive to say about the absence of the Kentucky Derby winner from the Preakness. "Western civilization will not crumble," he assured the people at Pimlico's Alibi Breakfast this morning, "because of the absence of Spend a Buck."

Maybe not, but the excitement that always surrounds the Preakness has eroded a bit. Even at the Alibi Breakfast, usually a ritual of hype and self-congratulation, the horse who isn't here was the one whose name was most often invoked, and there wasn't much pretense that the 110th Preakness will be an event of earthshaking significance.

How much hype can there be for a race that boils down to a rematch of the third- and 12th-place finishers in the Kentucky Derby?

This Preakness, set to go off Saturday at 5:40 p.m. (WJLA-TV-7), is widely perceived as a two-horse race between Chief's Crown and Eternal Prince. In fact, one other horse, Tank's Prospect, has a plausible chance to win. A victory by any of the eight other entrants would be a stunning upset that defies all handicapping logic.

Chief's Crown, who almost certainly will be an odds-on favorite, was considered the outstanding horse of his generation until his third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. But even in defeat he gave his usual performance, solid if unspectacular.

Given the absence of the two horses who beat him at Churchill Downs, Spend a Buck and Stephan's Odyssey, he can win at Pimlico if he duplicates that effort. Trainer Roger Laurin thinks he'll do even better.

"If anything," Laurin said, "he's acting more determined and aggressive than he was before the Derby."

Eternal Prince can win, too, if he shows the brilliance he displayed in New York before the Kentucky Derby. The colt led all the way to win the Gotham and Wood Memorial Stakes, but he got a miserable ride in the Derby and finished a miserable 12th.

Eternal Prince showed that he is primed for a top effort by working three furlongs in 33 4/5 seconds. His co-owner, Brian Hurst, leads the field in confidence. "It's a one-horse race, us against the clock," he said this week.

Tank's Prospect hasn't received much attention this week, but the colt ran one of the best races by a 3-year-old this spring in winning the Arkansas Derby. He finished seventh at Churchill Downs, but he did make a strong move in the middle of the race. On Saturday he gets the services of Pat Day, the Eclipse Award-winning jockey of last season.

Two factors are likely to determine which of these horses wins the $423,200 first prize: tactics and track condition.

All the tactical considerations in the race revolve around Eternal Prince. Trainer Butch Lenzini has told the world he will instruct jockey Chris McCarron to come out of the gate fast and try to lead all the way. How the other horses react to him is critical.

If nobody challenges Eternal Prince, and he manages to open a clear lead while running the first half-mile in 48 seconds (as Aloma's Ruler did in 1982), he will be almost impossible to beat.

If Eternal Prince is pressured by one of the other speedsters in the field, such as Sport Jet or Cutlass Reality, Chief's Crown will be able to sit comfortably behind the leaders and stalk them, and from that position he would be very difficult to beat.

If nobody else challenges Eternal Prince early and jockey Don MacBeth feels that Chief's Crown has to do it, the two could hook up in a murderous speed duel the way Honest Pleasure and Bold Forbes did in 1976. That could set up the race for the one bona-fide stretch runner in the field, Tank's Prospect.

The condition of the track always influences the outcome of races at Pimlico, but it is difficult to guess what the track will be like. Heavy rain made the racing strip sloppy this afternoon, but its base was very firm and times were unusually quick. If the weather forecast is correct and no rain falls on Saturday, the track probably will be fast for the Preakness.

But it might not be the same kind of fast track that Pimlico regulars are accustomed to. Traditionally, front-runners on the rail have a big edge here, but over the past two days those horses have been fading regularly in the stretch.

Pimlico officials may have taken action to eradicate the rail-favoring bias that has been the source of much discussion and criticism here. If this Preakness did turn out to be run on a track that favored stretch-runners on the outside, western civilization would be shocked -- and a lot of jockeys would be fooled.