06/10/2001 11:00PM

After Belmont, Derby rears its baffling head

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NEW YORK - When Point Given crushed his opponents in the Belmont Stakes by more than a dozen lengths, he left no doubt that he is the dominant 3-year-old of his generation, one who would have been a worthy Triple Crown winner.

He ran the fourth-fastest Belmont in the event's 133 years, confirming the superiority he displayed in the Preakness. Every time he runs, he exhibits a new facet to his talent. In the Santa Anita Derby he showed he has the speed to press the fastest of sprinters. At Pimlico he came from last place and unleashed a devastating move on the turn. At Belmont he showed he possesses the stamina to run 1 1/2 miles as well as the tractable, push-button kind of speed that can secure a perfect tactical position.

These endowments make him so hard to beat that it now seems almost unimaginable that Point Given was beaten soundly in the Kentucky Derby. Almost everyone in the racing world shares the feelings of jockey Gary Stevens, who said, "I can't help but think what might have been if he had won the Kentucky Derby. He could have had a Triple Crown next to his name." Why did Point Given fail at Churchill Downs? After training the colt throughout the series, Bob Baffert now senses that he knows.

In the aftermath of the Derby, Baffert's first thought was that Point Given didn't like the hard Churchill Downs track, but this was a dubious explanation, for the colt ran his best race as a 2-year-old over a fast Churchill Downs strip. Later, both Baffert and Stevens recognized that their tactical approach to the Derby had been flawed. Stevens had hustled Point Given from the gate to chase the fastest pace in Derby history instead of letting him settle off the pace and make a rally. These tactics surely contributed to the defeat, but Baffert's other colt, Congaree, had been even closer to the fast pace and outfinished Point Given. So the pace wasn't the whole explanation.

Baffert now wonders if he didn't have Point Given fit enough to handle the rigors of the Derby.

Point Given is a big, powerful athlete, and horses like him need a lot of work to get and stay fit. Because the colt had a solid campaign at 2, Baffert gave him only two prep races as a 3-year-old before the Derby - even though only one colt in the past 45 years has won the Derby this way. Moreover, his final tune-up, the Santa Anita Derby, was four weeks before the Triple Crown.

Interviewed by Bob Costas on NBC's Derby telecast, Baffert said, "Maybe the horse needed one more race before the Derby. The Derby served to wake him up." He added, "There's no textbook on training. This is trial and error." Although he is part of a profession filled with egomaniacs who can't admit any personal failings, the trainer said, in essence: I think I made a mistake. I've learned from it. And now we're moving on.

Point Given will surely be moving on to greater glory. He earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 114 in the Belmont, the best by any winner of this race since Unbridled in 1990. He is now only about two lengths behind the top older horses in the country. Because 3-year-olds tend to improve steadily as they mature in the second half of the season, he is likely to establish himself as the best horse of any age.

As Point Given's Derby loss had been an enigma, so too was Monarchos's poor showing in the Preakness. Trainer John T. Ward Jr. repeatedly expressed the opinion that the Derby winner didn't like the Pimlico racing strip. Ward is one of the most thoughtful and articulate trainers in the nation, but blaming the racetrack is usually a bogus alibi and it proved to be so in this case. After losing by 7 1/2 lengths to Point Given in Baltimore, Monarchos was 13 lengths behind him in New York. The colt's form had simply declined after his impressive performance at Churchill Downs.

A few other random notes on the Triple Crown series:

Balto Star deserved a better fate. A brilliantly fast front-runner, he was entered in two spots where he couldn't win: the Derby, against a field loaded with other formidable speed horses, and the Belmont, whose distance was too long for him. This colt could have dominated many other races, but he wound up losing these two by margins of 32 and 45 lengths. If these routs didn't demoralize him, he could still be a star later in the year.

Express Tour, the colt owned by the Godolphin Racing operation of Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, returned to competition Saturday in the seven-furlong Riva Ridge Stakes at Belmont after being trounced in the Derby. The colt had been an outstanding sprinter before the sheikh bought him, and this looked like a perfect spot. But Express Tour barely picked up his feet, continuing a pattern of failure for the sheikh's horses. Godolphin annually sends colts into the Derby ill-prepared; Express Tour had raced once in seven months before trying to win at Churchill Downs. Because these horses aren't fit enough, the Derby takes such a physical toll on them that they don't recover. Will the sheikh ever learn?

Trainer Wayne Lukas made his only appearance in the Triple Crown series when he sent Buckle Down Ben to a seventh-place finish in the Belmont. Even so, Lukas made headlines this week when he was interviewed about Chris Antley, the jockey who battled addiction and died during the winter. Antley had ridden Charismatic, who broke down while he was trying to sweep the Triple Crown in 1999, and was credited for saving the horse's life when he jumped off and cradled the colt's broken leg. Astonishingly, Lukas blasted Antley, saying he had considered replacing him in the Belmont because Antley "wasn't focused" before the race.

Since Lukas and Baffert have been the dominant trainers of Triple Crown horses and both are effective self-promoters, plenty of people in the racing world think they are cut from the same cloth. The events of the last few days underscore a difference.

Baffert misses winning a Triple Crown and blames himself. Lukas loses a Triple Crown and blames a dead man.

? 2001, The Washington Post