Point Given Finally Sprouts Wings

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 the Derby 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 bittersweet aftermath.

"The Derby 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 Pepe Aragon, standing alongside the ramp, said, "If he gets a good trip, they'll never beat him."

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.

Belmont morning 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 better."

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 today."

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 coming."

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.

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