With Point Given being inducted into the Hall of Fame Friday, I am reprinting my recap of the 2001 Belmont Stakes.
It was a day of princes, presidents, and Pegasus.
With Belmont Park rocking from the surge of electricity generated by the
presence of former President Bill Clinton and his wife, U.S. Sen. Hillary
Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Point Given finally sprouted the wings his owner,
Prince Ahmed Salman, trainer Bob Baffert, and jockey Gary Stevens had
envisioned all along.
It was supposed to have happened in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), carrying the
towering chestnut to the first Triple Crown sweep since Affirmed in 1978. But
Point Given was grounded the first Saturday in May by a variety of reasons.
He's tried his best to get everyone to forget that day, but he's gone about it
the wrong way.
By winning the Preakness (gr. I) with relative ease and coming back to
annihilate his opponents by 12 1/4 lengths in the 133rd Belmont Stakes (gr. I)
on June 9, the colt has only called more attention to that dark day in May for
Salman's The Thoroughbred Corp. The more he dominates his opponents, the larger
defeat will loom in the history books and in the minds of the prince, Baffert,
and Stevens, who are still trying to come to terms with it.
Even following Point Given's spectacular performance in the Belmont,
they continued to ponder what went wrong in Kentucky. And it seems apparent that the
more the colt accomplishes, the more they are doomed to the lifelong curse of
what might have been, just as the connections of Native Dancer were nearly a
half century ago. They now know they were right in their lofty expectations,
and as a result, each subsequent Herculean effort by Point Given has brought a
defeat is going to be disappointing forever, knowing that racing probably was
deprived of a Triple Crown winner," Stevens said.
And that comment was made more than a week before the Belmont. As darkness fell on Belmont Day, an
emotional Stevens left the track, still carrying that faded image of the Triple
Crown in his mind. "It's not for myself; it's for the prince," said
Stevens, whom Salman called his "close friend," and who holds a
"very soft spot" in the prince's heart. "You have to
understand," Stevens added, "the Kentucky Derby is the ultimate for
the prince, and I really wanted it for him."
But Triple Crown or no Triple Crown, it was a day to remember, as 73,857
fans poured through the gates, a new attendance record for a non-Triple Crown
Belmont Stakes. And when it was over, the talk was not of opportunities lost,
but of a magnificent Thoroughbred who left Belmont Park
awash with a flood of memories that brought back visions of Secretariat and
Forego, and other superstars who have jolted the great track.
Abraham Lincoln once told the nation in regard to the Civil War, "I am
not concerned that you have fallen. I am concerned that you arise." Point
Given arose from the depths of the Derby
like the aforementioned winged Pegasus and stamped his name in the history
books with one of the most dominating performances in years.
The son of Thunder Gulch, known around the barn as the Big Red Train and
T-Rex, not only is trying to obliterate the Kentucky Derby debacle from everyone's
mind with his extraordinary speed, power, and grace, he's also attempting
diversionary tactics with his mischievous behavior. He rears straight up
without warning, and manages to inflict more wounds on his massive body than an
8-year-old boy crawling through a briar patch.
A little over a week before the Belmont, the colt, whom Baffert said has
aged him 10 years, suffered a cut over his eye after "trying to kill
himself" in his stall at Churchill Downs. After being stitched up, he was
tranquilized, and soon after, began acting colicky. Baffert had Point Given's
stomach lubricated and walked him for an hour. Afraid that eating hay might
create gas, Baffert removed his hay rack for the night and left some alfalfa in
the corner of his stall. At 12:30 a.m., the grooms heard a horse
"screaming around the barn area." It seemed Point Given had gotten so
hungry, he was trying to reach a few pieces of hay on the floor outside his
stall. He managed to get his knee and head under the webbing, and when he came
up, he broke the snaps on the wall, bending one of the screw eyes. As he was
getting to his feet with the webbing now gone, he rubbed against the screw eye,
causing a long gash on the right side of his body. After a few seconds of
freedom, he was caught by the grooms.
At Santa Anita in April, the colt threw his exercise rider on the track and
ran through the stable area without a bridle, charging right past The
Thoroughbred Corp.'s racing manager, Richard Mulhall, who was standing by the
rail drinking coffee. Such is life with Point Given. "He never gives you a
chance to take a breath and relax," Baffert said. "He's like a big
playful kid and you have to watch him."
Although there was no Triple Crown at stake this year, the Belmont
still was creating interest as the rubber match between Point Given and
Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos, and also featured Derby and Preakness runners-up Invisible Ink
and A P Valentine, respectively.
While Monarchos was sent to Belmont
Park a few days after the
Preakness, Point Given didn't ship until the Wednesday before the race. After
arriving at JFK International Airport
at 9:30 a.m., the big chestnut stepped onto the ramp leading down to the van
and let out a loud whinny, as if he were announcing his arrival. Exercise rider
standing alongside the ramp, said, "If he gets a good trip, they'll never
Stevens and Baffert also were confident the 1 1/2-mile Belmont would be the stage for Point Given's
greatest performance. "Bob and I are really expecting him to put on a
show," Stevens said a week before the race.
Awaiting Point Given was trainer John Terranova, in whose barn he would
stay, as he had done the previous fall for the Champagne Stakes (gr. I).
"I'm padding the walls," Terranova joked the previous morning. On his
first day to the track, as Point Given prepared to go out, Terranova might have
wished he weren't kidding after the colt reared up in the barn, causing Aragon to
dismount. For the two mornings Point Given went to the track, photographers and
cameramen lined up in preparation for any possible antics. The atmosphere can
best be described as a NASCAR crowd waiting for the crash. But it never
happened. Equipped with a lip cord for better control, Point Given was a
perfect gentleman going to and from the track.
The key to Point Given is not allowing him time to think about doing
something wild. As he walked back to the barn that first morning, Baffert
yelled to Aragon
and assistant Jim Barnes on the pony, "Keep him going, keep him
going." As he came off the track, photographers began to gather at the
gap, and Baffert, watching from the trainer's stand, said to no one in
particular, but directing his comment to Aragon and Barnes, "Pretend
you're a New York City
taxi driver. Just run 'em down." Finally, as Point Given walked calmly
into the barn, Baffert let out a sigh of relief. "OK, we got him back in
the corral," he said.
In addition to the first two finishers of the Derby
and Preakness, the Belmont field also included
the Derby and
Preakness fourth-place finishers, Thunder Blitz and Dollar Bill, respectively,
in addition to Balto Star, Buckle Down Ben, and the English import Dr
Greenfield, whose Team Valor syndicate members all wore stethoscopes around
their necks on the day of the race.
arrived with blue, sunny skies and a slight chill in the air. The majority of
the nine Belmont
starters all spent a quiet morning in the shed. One of the exceptions was A P
Valentine, who went out for a light jog the wrong way. John Ward, trainer of Monarchos,
was feeling better about the race after being given a sign that morning from
his gray colt. The day before, Ward had been looking at a photo of Monarchos
hanging on his wall, taken after his victory in the Florida Derby (gr. I). Ward
liked this photo because of the "keen look" in Monarchos' eye.
"I couldn't figure out this week what it was I didn't like about the
horse," he said. "Then I realized it was that I haven't seen that
shiny look. He had more of a stress look across his face. Late yesterday
morning, he yawned and just laid there. And then this morning, he had that same
confident look in his eye he had in the photo, which made me feel a lot
Another confident trainer was Dallas Stewart, who was just hoping the
hard-luck Dollar Bill finally would get a clean trip. While walking the shed,
Dollar Bill stopped and looked right at Stewart. The trainer reached into his
pocket, took out a handful of change, and shook it. "Hey, I don't want no
more change," he said to the horse. "I want the whole dollar
Some of the others had their game face on. Dr Greenfield took a bite out of
trainer Gerard Butler's arm, and Thunder Blitz kicked the wall of the barn
while walking the shed. "I was holding my breath watching him walk back to
his stall," trainer Joe Orseno said.
At D. Wayne Lukas' barn, the Hall of Fame trainer was hoping Buckle Down Ben
would give him his second straight longshot victory in the Belmont. "If we pull this off today,
it'll get pretty quiet up in that press box," he said. "I heard that
last year you could hear a pin drop."
If there was an omen of things to come, it occurred the day before the race
when a cast member of the Broadway show Les Miserables performed on the track
apron, singing the show's hit song, "On My Own." The next day, Point
Given would give new meaning to those words.
Sent off the 6-5 favorite, Point Given broke from the outside post, as he
had done in the Derby
and Preakness. Monarchos and A P Valentine were 5-1. The start was delayed when
Dr Greenfield went into a frenzy behind the gate. After a clean break, Stevens
put Point Given right up near the pace in third, about two lengths behind
pacesetting Balto Star and the tracking Buckle Down Ben. Victor Espinoza was
clocking Point Given while aboard A P Valentine, with Monarchos in seventh, but
only seven lengths off the pace. After a half in :48, Point Given went his next
two quarters in under :24 to reach the mile marker in a brisk 1:35.56. It was
obvious at this point the big chestnut was in complete control. "He was
pretty much galloping all the way to the quarter pole," Stevens said.
Point Given disposed of the two leaders under no encouragement at all from
Stevens, who gave a peek back over his right shoulder. A P Valentine, who had
to be pushed hard to keep up, moved up to challenge around the five-sixteenths
pole, but it was all Point Given, who drew off with every stride. Despite the
domination, Stevens still hit him a dozen times with the whip in the stretch.
"He actually was idling with me a little and I thought somebody had to be
coming," he said. "I didn't know how far in front I was at the eighth
pole and I didn't care. I knew he was going to get a rest afterward, and it was
important for everybody to see how good he is."
Point Given kept pouring it on, completing the mile and a half in 2:26.56
(2:26 2/5), which equaled the fourth-fastest Belmont ever. A P Valentine dug in gamely and
held off Monarchos for second by three-quarters of a length, with Dollar Bill
another length back in fourth.
After suffering two heartbreaking defeats in the Belmont with Silver Charm and Real Quiet, and having
Cavonnier bow a tendon and Silverbulletday run poorly, Baffert finally landed
the big one in New York,
where he admits he's not exactly the Big Apple's most popular visitor.
"Well, I got that gorilla off my back," Baffert said immediately
after the race. Earlier, he had told his son Canyon
to be prepared to hear "a lot of bad things" from the fans about his
father, which he did. "They didn't say anything bad about me after the
race, did they?" he asked his son. "We shut 'em up."
Accompanying the joy of victory, however, came the maybes and
second-guessing. "Maybe I didn't do enough after the Santa Anita Derby
(gr. I)," Baffert said. "Maybe I should have worked him
three-quarters. Maybe I should have run him in the Wood Memorial (gr. II) over
a deeper track against Monarchos."
The one thing that is etched in stone, with no maybes attached, is the
magnificence of Point Given's performance. New Yorkers may have had mixed
reactions regarding the human celebrities in attendance, but they couldn't help
but admire this remarkable athlete.
During the post-race press conference, Baffert received a call from Barnes.
After hanging up, he told Salman and Stevens, "Jimmy called. The horse is
already cooled out. He's a beast."
When Point Given walked back to the test barn, A P Valentine's trainer Nick
Zito was walking just ahead of him. "My horse ran his heart out
again," Zito said, "but that other horse is in another zone."
Another Zito quote proved interesting. "That horse just will not go
away," he said. "He keeps coming at you. He's unbelievable. No matter
how many times you think you have him beat, he just keeps coming and
No, he wasn't talking about Point Given. Those actually were Zito's words
following the 1995 Belmont Stakes, describing Point Given's sire, Thunder
Gulch, to whom Zito had run second three times -- with Suave Prospect in the
Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) and Florida Derby, and Star Standard in the
Belmont. So, Zito now has finished second in five major stakes, including three
classics, to "The Big Red Train" and his sire, "The Little
Engine That Could."
As for Point Given, his future is unlimited. He has done things his way, and
despite some tough setbacks and scary moments, has emerged as one of the most
imposing, brilliant, and colorful horses seen in many years.
What makes this horse so special? "He's like poetry in motion,"
Stevens said. "Despite his size and strength, he's like a feather that's
just floating. I mean you don't even feel him hit the ground. It's like he's on
a carpet of air. He's something very, very special, and I just feel graced to
even be able to ride a horse like this."
John Terranova put it best when he said the morning of the Belmont, "He's an original." He
might have added, just like any work of art.