Point Given back on track
By Ed McNamara
Special to ESPN.com
BALTIMORE Thoroughbred racing can be a maddening maze of zigs and zags, of career highlights followed by pathetic flops, and vice versa. On the first Saturday in May, Monarchos was being mentioned as a candidate for greatness while Point Given was being ridiculed as an overhyped failure. Two weeks later, the two 3-year-old colts performed the type of stunning role reversal that delights some horseplayers and mystifies others.
It can be a strange, humbling game.
Point Given regained his status as the leader of his generation Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, where he cruised to a 2 1/4-length victory over A P Valentine in the 126th running of the Preakness Stakes. Staggering home sixth, 7 1/2 lengths behind, was Monarchos, who was coming off the most lopsided Derby win in 16 years and whose time was second only to the immortal Secretariat's. A record Preakness crowd of 104,454 saw the ultimate switcheroo, and for the 23rd consecutive year there will be no Triple Crown winner.
"I didn't lose confidence in this horse," said winning trainer Bob Baffert, who also sent out third-place Congaree. "I loved the work at Churchill early this week. I knew at the quarter pole he was going to win.
"Maybe I didn't train him hard enough between the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby. I thought he was in a perfect spot in the Derby, but he didn't have the punch and finished fifth. We were very disappointed, and it usually takes three days to find out if they're hurt. He always had a little problem in a hind pastern, but he was fine."
Rumors of physical ailments swirled about Point Given since the Derby. After that inexplicable dud, he was taken to the Rood and Riddle Clinic in Lexington, Ky., for what Baffert said was a hoof problem. On Friday, he reared up and landed awkwardly on his right front foreleg, which is similar to a human twisting an ankle. He looked pretty healthy coasting down the stretch under jockey Gary Stevens.
The huge, beefy son of Thunder Gulch ran 1 3/16 miles on a fast track in 1:55.51 and paid $6.60 for his sixth win in 10 career starts. He earned $650,000 for Prince Ahmed Salmen, raising his bankroll to $1,868,500.
"I knew going into the first turn that the race was over," said Stevens, who also teamed with Baffert to win the '97 Preakness with Silver Charm. Baffert repeated the next year with Real Quiet.
"He was taking to the track perfectly today. I feel great. I feel like he vindicated himself today.
"I can't understand or explain what happened at Churchill Downs, but the horse I rode today didn't show up at Churchill. As we went down the backstretch today, I was sitting on a mountain."
Falling off the summit after his peak experience in Louisville was Monarchos, who was out of it early and showed nothing for rider Jorge Chavez. It didn't take long for trainer John Ward to realize that it wouldn't be his day.
"Going down the stretch the first time, he didn't want to use his right lead, which meant he wasn't comfortable with the track," Ward said with his back pressed against a wall at Pimlico's stakes barn. "On the stretch turn, he wasn't going anywhere. He didn't pick it up when Jorge asked him there, and that's his favorite part of the race."
Monarchos impressed the media with his long, strong gallops this past week at Pimlico, but when it came to running at full speed, he couldn't pick up his feet.
"There was nothing wrong with the Pimlico surface," Ward said. "He just didn't like it."
Point Given broke cleanly from his outside post in the field of 11 and was ninth entering the first turn while four-wide. Richly Blended, with Rick Wilson up, set comfortable fractions of 47.32 seconds for the half-mile and 1:11.86 for 6 furlongs, and Stevens bided his time down the backstretch. The winner was moving comfortably and was still in hand when Stevens made the middle move that would blow open the race. Point Given moved six-wide on the backstretch and swept four-wide on the stretch turn, a burst that was reminiscent of Monarchos' Derby run.
Point Given took the lead entering the straight after a mile in a moderate 1:36.40. He and stablemate Congaree, ridden by Jerry Bailey for the first time, were 1-2 at the top of the lane, just as they were in the Derby, but this time there would be no surge from Monarchos. Stevens' colt lugged in on Congaree near the three-sixteenths pole before being straightened, and Point Given was gone at the furlong marker.
"I remembered seeing [Ron] Turcotte on Secretariat in the '73 Preakness," Stevens said, "and I rode him kind of like that. I kept him out of trouble on the outside."
A P Valentine, a 10-1 shot ridden by Victor Espinoza, closed to be a nonthreatening second, a neck ahead of Congaree. They were followed by Dollar Bill, 59-1 Griffinite and Monarchos, who blew away all of them in Louisville. Point Given made up 19 lengths on the Derby winner in 14 days. That's progress.
"I told Gary 'Please take him back off the pace,'" Baffert said. "He's the horse we thought he was."
The Preakness script produced the result that so many people expected to see when they made Point Given the 9-5 favorite in the Derby and let Monarchos get away at 10-1. At Pimlico, Point Given and Monarchos both were sent off at 2.30-1, with Point Given the narrow fave. This time the bettors got it right. Well, half right, anyway.
"There was no bias favoring speed or closers today," Stevens said, "and the real Point Given showed up. I've ridden a lot of very, very talented horses over the years, and this horse is equal to many in that group."
Unfortunately, there's no guarantee that Point Given and Monarchos will meet for a third time in the Belmont Stakes on June 9. "I'll think long and hard about running in the Belmont," Ward said. "I'll see what Mr. Oxley [owner John] says, and how the animal is."
Chavez hopes he'll get a rematch with Point Given over 1 1/2 miles at the big track on Long Island. "The track and pace were different today than in the Derby," Chavez said. "I think the Belmont Stakes will be different."
Could be. If this sport has one absolute truth, it's that you never can tell.