Derby disappearing act is sticking point after win


PEOPLE in horse racing tend to forget quickly about losses, even bitterly disappointing losses. Who has the time to pause and reflect when there always are more races to run? There's just no wallowing in racing, not if you want to stay employed.

But every once in a while, a defeat sticks so deeply in the craws of a trainer and jockey that they just can't put it behind them - not in the short term, and maybe not in the long term, either. Trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Gary Stevens offered wistful evidence of that after their powerful colt, Point Given, dominated the Preakness yesterday at Pimlico.

They were pleased about winning the second jewel of the Triple Crown, of course - Baffert for the third time, Stevens the second. But their tone also was bittersweet. After watching Point Given give the kind of performance so many had expected when he ran fifth as the 9-5 favorite in the Kentucky Derby, Baffert and Stevens obviously couldn't help but think about what might have been.

They never actually admitted they believe they would, could and should be gunning for a Triple Crown with this horse, but it didn't take much of a discerning ear to hear them say it.

You have never heard a winning trainer and jockey spend more time talking about what went wrong.

"We're never going to know what happened in the Derby," Baffert said. "He's a great horse. He just didn't show up that day."

Said Stevens: "I've ridden a lot of very, very talented horses over the years, and this horse is equal to many in that group. Anyone who saw him run this spring [in prep races before the Derby] knew he was something special. It was so disappointing for so many people when he ran so badly in the Derby. But I still knew what we had."

So did the betting public, it turned out - Point Given left the starting gate as the 2-1 favorite yesterday, just scant dollars ahead of the Derby winner, Monarchos. Their race on the track wasn't nearly so close. This was Monarchos' day to forget to show up; he trailed the field through the first half-mile and was never closer than sixth in the homestretch. Incredibly, a 59-1 shot, Griffinite, passed him in the stretch.

Hailed after the Derby for his unconventional training regimen - no breezes, just long gallops - John Ward Jr., the trainer of Monarchos, will now hear all about what he doesn't know.

Of course, for those scoring at home, that's now one Triple Crown win apiece for Monarchos and Point Given, with the Belmont still to go.

And what if Point Given puts on the same kind of display there, leaving the Derby as the only blight on his record of total dominance stretching back to last December? How could Baffert not feel pangs of regret?

"Hey, Monarchos ran a great race in Kentucky," the trainer said. "His race there was huge. You can't look back in this business. Horses beat horses."

That was his sporting, diplomatic response. Then he spent the next three minutes second-guessing himself about the Derby, obviously believing it's a race he let get away.

"If I had it to do over again, I would have sent him to the Wood [Memorial prep race in April]," Baffert said. "That would have toughened him up for the [fast] pace in the Derby."

The winning Preakness trainer shook his head with dismay.

"There are a lot of possible reasons when a horse just doesn't show up like that," Baffert said. "The heat can get to them. Or he doesn't like the surface, can't get over it. Something just isn't right.

"Churchill Downs is a weird [racing strip]. Sometimes they don't get over it as well. [Point Given] wasn't comfortable."

His car wouldn't start. The dog ate his homework. Whatever the appropriate excuse, if there was one, Point Given just wasn't anywhere close to his best that day. And with his triumph yesterday driving home the point with emphasis, his best just might have been good enough to win a Triple Crown.

After laying sixth through the first half-mile and charging from third to second through the far turn, he drew ominously even with the leader, Congaree, at the head of the stretch.

"Congaree is a good, fast horse, and Point Given just loped up to him," said Baffert, who also trains Congaree. "I haven't seen a move like that since [1998 Derby and Preakness winner] Real Quiet."

Point Given put Congaree away easily, almost effortlessly, and cruised to the finish line. And Stevens said later that the colt was barely even paying attention, instead checking out the grandstand.

"Seventy-five percent," Stevens estimated the horse's effort. "I wasn't even asking for much at the end."

Imagine what might happen when the colt brings his A game.

Baffert is right that there's no looking back, of course. Racing history is full of champions who blinked only at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Native Dancer, for instance.

Point Given, now the winner of six of 10 career starts, still has to do a lot to prove he belongs in such company. A big performance on the third Saturday in May isn't nearly enough.

But if the colt does end up living up to his billing in the coming months, you know, amid the joy and celebration, that the first Saturday in May is going to be hard to forget.

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