They both felt, in their separate ways, a powerful sense of
vindication at the end of last Saturday's Preakness Stakes at
Pimlico. In fact, for jockey Gary Stevens and trainer Bob
Baffert, there was also a curiously mixed but equally strong set
of emotions that stretched from the euphoria of their triumphant
moment in Baltimore to the keen disappointment of having failed
in the Kentucky Derby two weeks earlier.
Their gawky, goofy equine adolescent known as Point Given, a
soundly beaten favorite on May 5 at Churchill Downs--where he
finished a lifeless fifth, 11 1/2 lengths behind the
stretch-running winner, Monarchos--had just earned a nearly
effortless win over A P Valentine. The 2 1/4-length victory
proved that Stevens's and Baffert's faith in his ability as a
racehorse was not misplaced and gave credence to their
oft-expressed judgment that he is a very special beast indeed.
There was Stevens, only minutes after the race, riding the
towering chestnut outside the winner's circle, gleefully chiding
one writer for having picked the colt in the Derby but then
abandoning him in the Preakness, while he alternately gulped
water from a bottle and sprinkled the colt. "The real Point Given
showed up today!" crowed Stevens. "Look at his nostrils. He's not
even blowin'! This was just a gallop for him."
Standing on the turf course in the shadow of the giant
thoroughbred known affectionately around his barn as T Rex,
Baffert was relishing this moment. He was near tears as he called
his 78-year-old mother, Elinora. Plagued by kidney and heart
ailments, she had not been able to make the trip from the family
ranch in Nogales, Ariz., to Baltimore. Baffert had guaranteed his
mother a Kentucky Derby victory--"I let her down," he said on
Saturday--but instead he delivered the Preakness with a horse who
had rubbernecked at the crowds through the stretch after ducking
in and nearly knocking Congaree, his stablemate, into the fence
at the top of the lane. "I wish you were here," Baffert told
Elinora above the din. "Oh, this horse! He's a pain, but he's
worth the trouble."
Well worth it. Throughout the winter, from that Dec. 16 afternoon
when he dusted Millennium Wind in the Hollywood Futurity, Point
Given had given signals that he was the best colt of his
talent-rich generation. He confirmed this on St. Patrick's Day at
Santa Anita, where he crushed seven others in the San Felipe
Stakes, and carved it in the stone of the San Gabriel Mountains
when he embarrassed five foes in the April 7 Santa Anita Derby,
winning by nearly six lengths and looking like the most dominant
3-year-old since the Easy Goer-Sunday Silence tandem of 1989.
However, as soon as Point Given was whipped in the Kentucky
Derby, he became a puzzling afterthought to many journalists and
an enigma to handicappers. "He is the forgotten horse," Baffert
said before the Preakness. He joked about the press's abandonment
of the horse, but it clearly nettled him. "Isn't it amazing the
way the media leave you?" Baffert asked shortly before the race.
"Like rats on a sinking ship."
Even A P Valentine, who had not won a stakes race since Oct. 14,
had a more vociferous, albeit smaller, gang of followers.
Congaree, who had run brilliantly in finishing third in the
Kentucky Derby--he was the only horse to get caught up in that
record-breaking pace and survive--suddenly appeared to be the more
dangerous of Baffert's two horses, particularly after the trainer
replaced Congaree's Derby jockey, Victor Espinoza, with Jerry
The reason for Point Given's lackluster effort in Kentucky became
a centerpiece of debate among those seeking to divine the outcome
of the Preakness. "The pace was the key to that race," Baffert
said last Thursday. Seeking to get a spot within striking
distance of the pacesetters from the 17th post position, Stevens
had rushed Point Given out of the gate and found himself far too
close to the leaders as they clocked those torrid early splits,
leaving the colt empty on the last turn. Baffert also was
criticized for training the horse too hard at Churchill Downs--his
five-furlong drill in 58 1/5 seconds five days before the Derby
was an eyepopper--and rumors surfaced last week that the colt was
lame. Baffert eased up on his workouts for the Preakness. "I
slowed him down," he said a few days after the colt had worked
five eighths in :59 4/5. "I didn't want to take too much out of
him." Still, when the colt ended up in post position 11 at
Pimlico, more seers despaired of his chances.
Racing fans, though, had not given up on him, and by post time he
was a slight favorite over Monarchos; both went off at $2.30 to
$1, with about $4,000 more bet on T Rex in the win pool. Stevens
broke the Point cleanly but did not rush him early, allowing him
to settle near the back in the run to the first turn. He hadn't
gone 500 yards when he sensed that the old Point Given, relaxed
and into the bridle, was back. "Going into the first turn, it was
the same feeling I had in the Santa Anita Derby," Stevens said.
"The race was over."
All he had to do was keep him in the clear. In a stretch of 880
yards, from midway into the first turn through midway into the
last, Point Given threw down a blistering half mile in about 46
seconds, swallowing one horse after another as he raced seven
wide on the backstretch. The momentum carried him to the throat
of the leader, Congaree, on the final turn. "He did it with no
effort at all," Stevens said. "We got the trip we were hoping to
get in the Kentucky Derby."
Point Given flew dry sails into the final straight. Stevens
glanced over his right shoulder, looking for Monarchos, but the
Derby winner was on a treadmill going nowhere. (He would finish
sixth.) Glancing left, he saw Bailey in a drive on Congaree.
Stevens smiled at him, knowing he had two handfuls of horse.
"Nobody's coming on the inside!" Bailey yelled. "If they come,
I'll shout at you!"
There was no need for that, but Stevens needed all his skill and
strength to snatch his colt straight when he ducked left at the
3/16 pole, threatening to put Bailey over the fence. Driving
Point Given home, Stevens had no trouble keeping A P Valentine at
bay, even as his mount gawked like a tourist at the grandstand
Stevens and Baffert came to the winner's circle with a sense that
they had won this battle but had already lost the war. "Don't get
me wrong," Stevens said. "I'm happy to have won, but I'm
disappointed that America doesn't have a horse going for the
Triple Crown. I thought this horse was the one."
After finishing the call to his mother, Baffert looked up at
Stevens on Point Given and urged him to live the moment. "Come
on, Gary," he said. "Let's go get that silver."