06/08/2001 12:00AM

Baffert fearful of a dry track

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Michael J. Marten
Bob Baffert celebrates his Preakness win in his own unique way.

ELMONT, N.Y. - The eve of the Belmont Stakes was such a quiet day that even the usually rambunctious Point Given was as mum as a librarian.

A day after dumping his exercise rider before heading to the track for a gallop, Point Given went to the track Friday like a prim and proper gentleman and causually galloped around Belmont Park's 1 1/2-mile oval.

"He behaved himself," said trainer Bob Baffert. "He wasn't as wild as yesterday because he wasn't as fresh.

"He's an animal. We weren't going to give him a chance to do anything. At the Preakness [when he reared] we sort of let our guard down. That day no one was paying attention when he went out to the track. He stumbled and he spooked himself. Today when he went by he was like a big kid and started stumbling, but right away we got him going. But when you let him go out there by himself, he sees something and you're in trouble. We haven't given him a chance to mess up."

Without Point Given to provide the fireworks, the topic of the day turned out to be the condition of Belmont Park's main track on Saturday afternoon at 6:05 p.m. Baffert thought the track Point Given galloped over Friday was fine, but he warned that everything could be different Saturday.

"[Point Given] moved around the track really well," Baffert said. "The track is in good shape and hopefully it will stay that way; it won't get too deep or slow.

"[In 1996] I was here for three weeks with Cavonnier and the track was really fast and he worked great and then the day of the race it was dry and deep and loose and he bowed [a tendon]. I worry about that stuff like that. When I was here with Silver Charm [1997] Real Quiet [in 1998] they had it dry and deep. It was deep last year and the horses from behind are struggling like they're running on a beach. If they can keep water on it, it will be great. It's the maintenance. The trackman can change everything. He can bring the longshot in.

"I told the trackman today, I hope he doesn't do what he did the last seven or eight years. The track is fast and all of a sudden it's a beach and it's hard on horses."

Point Given, the 7-5 favorite for the Belmont off his victory in the Preakness, figures to be at the back of the pack and could be one of those closers who would have their chances compromised by a dry, cuppy track.

Monarchos, the Kentucky Derby, will also be at the back of the pack in the early but his trainer, John T. Ward Jr., wasn't as concerned about what could await his horse in the Grade 1 final leg of the Triple Crown.

"Personally I'd like three inches of rain on Saturday," Ward said. "But really, as long as they get some water on it, it will be fine. What you're afraid is that they get a light breeze or a 10-mile per hour breeze and there aren't enough fire trucks or water trucks on Long Island to keep it from becoming a cuppy track. Everyone fears it when it's cuppy because only one or two horses will handle it and you're not sure if you have those one or two horses."

D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Belmont longshot Buckle Down Ben, has won the Belmont four times and said he never paid much attention to how deep the racetrack was.

"What it is, is what it is," Lukas said. "Sometimes people are searching for excuses. My horse galloped over the track twice and if it's the same track I'll have to find a different excuse to explain why he loses."

Ward offers a frank opinion

The candor award for the 2001 Triple Crown has to go to John T. Ward, trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos.

Some five weeks ago, Ward was positive his horse would rebound from a second-place finish in the Wood Memorial and win the Derby.

Now, after Monarchos's Triple Crown quest came to a screeching halt with a sixth-place finish in the Preakness, Monarchos faces a similar scenario. Only this time Ward said Friday that he was not as certain that Monarchos will wind up in the winner's circle.

"No, I am not as confident as I was going into the Derby," Ward said. "I've done all I can do to prepare the horse. When it's the Derby everything you do for that whole year is to position yourself for that one race. After that you let the pieces fall where they may. You just make sure the horse gets over there and gets home because you have $5 million to go for in the Breeders' Cup. Right now we're more scared of fresh horses."

Ward was also well aware of fickle fame could be. A hero after the Derby, going into the Belmont he was picked on top by only one of 16 Daily Racing Form handicappers and writers in a staff selection box.

"I opened up the Form and saw everyone bailed out on us," Ward said. "But Mr. [John] Oxley [Monarchos's owner] does not mind it because it gets him a better price at the [betting] windows."

Monarchos was priced as the 5-2 second-choice in the morning line. On Saturday, when Mr. Oxley heads to the windows, the could drop.