For favorite, Crown is no 'Given'


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Every year baseball has its World Series champion. Football has its Super Bowl winner.

But horse racing has not had a Triple Crown winner since 1978. Is this the year the sport so desperately craving a star finally gets one?

The answer will begin emerging today with the 127th running of the Kentucky Derby, the first leg of the Triple Crown. The race at Churchill Downs will showcase 17 of the top 3-year-old thoroughbreds, a field so deep and talented that experts are calling it the strongest in years.

Point Given, the flashy chestnut with the flashy connections, fits the bill of potential Triple Crown star. He looks the part, acts the part and runs the part. After his last race, an overpowering victory in the Santa Anita Derby, losing trainers practically conceded him the Triple Crown.

Bob Baffert, Point Given's trainer, says hold on a minute here, partner. Sure, Point Given is a powerhouse, a locomotive roaring down the stretch, he says. But the Kentucky Derby is perhaps the toughest of all races to win, and the Triple Crown is perhaps the most elusive prize in all of sports.

"He's a big, strong horse; he has the look of a champion," Baffert says of Point Given. "But right now I'm not thinking Triple Crown at all. I'm thinking Kentucky Derby."

Perhaps not right now. But Baffert, after just missing Triple Crowns with Silver Charm and Real Quiet, mapped out a campaign for Point Given that should, if he wins the Derby, give him a fighting chance also to win the Preakness and Belmont.

After providing a solid foundation of six races last year, Baffert has run Point Given only twice this year. He won both races at Santa Anita Park convincingly, yet so easily that he would appear to have room for improvement.

Point Given will need it if he is to launch his bid for becoming the 12th Triple Crown winner. This field of Derby horses ranks with the all-time best, say students of the sport.

"This is the best crop of 3-year-olds since we began making figures, and one of the best crops ever," says Jerry Brown, president of Thoro-Graph, which began issuing data on horses' performances in 1982. "A lot of these horses have already run fast enough to win every Derby in the past 20 years.

"This crop is ridiculously fast. The sixth- or seventh-best horse in there is on par with Easy Goer or somebody like that. They're running as fast right now as the best older horses."

Of the top-notch group in the Derby, Brown says, Point Given, Congaree, Express Tour and Balto Star are sitting on big races. Point Given may be best, he says, but the No. 17 post position in this bulky field will require supreme effort.

"This isn't going to be easy for him," Brown says. "Then again, if he gets by this one, the next two will be easier because of their smaller fields."

Point Given is about as well-connected as a thoroughbred can be. Baffert, his trainer, emerged in the late 1990s as the new Derby master. With just nine entrants he has won twice (Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998), finished second once (Cavonnier in 1996) and finished third once (Indian Charlie in 1998).

Point Given is a large, frisky son of Thunder Gulch, who won the Derby in 1995. He is owned by The Thoroughbred Corporation, the racing stable of Prince Ahmed Salman of Saudi Arabia. The prince lives in a palace and owns 256 horses. And Point Given is ridden by Gary Stevens, the articulate jockey with the movie-star looks.

"I think this is an exceptional crop of 3-year-olds," says Stevens, who has won three Kentucky Derbies. "A lot of people have put us in the winner's circle already. But there're no gimmes in any horse race, let alone the Kentucky Derby.

"People have asked me who I fear. I fear everyone. I only know my own horse. I know how good he is. I don't know if he's going to improve for the Derby, but I've got a feeling he's going to. Whether that's needed or not, I don't know.

"The main goal is to have your horse peak on Derby day. Some of these horses are going to improve. Some are going to regress off their last race. That's what makes the Derby the Derby, the unforeseeable."

Baffert trains not only Point Given, the 9-5 morning-line favorite, but also Congaree, the 5-1 second choice. Baffert says they just might run one-two, even though they'd have to buck history.

If Point Given wins, he would become the first horse since Sunny's Halo in 1983 to win the Derby with just two races as a 3-year-old. The lightly raced Congaree, a veteran of only four outings, has an even steeper climb. If Congaree wins, he would become the first horse since Exterminator in 1918 to win the Derby with only four previous races.

If Baffert's pair do buck history, they would make history for their trainer. Baffert would become the fourth trainer in Derby history to finish one-two, and the first since 1948 when Ben Jones pulled off the feat with Citation and Coaltown.

This Derby features other tantalizing story lines.

Bobby Hurley, the former basketball player, is part owner of Songandaprayer, and Rick Pitino, the basketball coach, is part owner of A P Valentine. Hurley was a star at Duke in 1992 when it defeated Pitino's University of Kentucky in overtime in a classic NCAA tournament game.

Laffit Pincay Jr., whose 9,132 wins are the most of any jockey, will ride Millennium Wind. Although Pincay is 54, he would become only the second-oldest jockey to win the Derby. Bill Shoemaker was also 54 when he won in 1986 with Ferdinand. Shoemaker was born in August, however, Pincay in December.

But most of all, this Kentucky Derby offers everything delectable in a horse race: blazing speed on the rail, stalkers in the middle, closers on the outside. They call this the most exciting two minutes in sports, and this year they may be right.

Kentucky Derby

What: First leg of horse racing's Triple Crown

When: Today, 6:07 p.m. post

Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.

Distance: 1 1/4 miles

Purse: $1 million

TV: Chs. 11, 4 (coverage begins at 5 p.m.)

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