08/26/2001 11:00PM

Can greatness be thrust upon Point Given?


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Let's make something clear. Point Given was not racing for the 3-year-old championship in Saturday's Travers Stakes at Saratoga. He settled that issue on June 9, when he won the Belmont Stakes, which, along with his Preakness victory, gave him two-thirds of the Triple Crown.

There is no Holy Bull in this 3-year-old crop. No Key to the Mint or Arts and Letters. Those were the last three horses to capture a divisional championship over a rival who had won two thirds of the Triple Crown. In 1994, Holy Bull overtook Preakness and Belmont winner Tabasco Cat. In 1972, Key to the Mint overshadowed Kentucky Derby and Belmont winner Riva Ridge. In 1969, Arts and Letters overwhelmed Derby and Preakness winner Majestic Prince.

In the wake of the Belmont, it seemed obvious that no matter how he raced through the remainder of the season, Point Given would join the 14 horses since Majestic Prince who won two-thirds of the Triple Crown and went on to become a champion at 3.

No, what Point Given raced for in the Travers was something more elusive: greatness. Did he achieve it in his authoritative 3 1/2-length victory?

If your idea of greatness is courage, toughness, and sustained success, then Point Given qualifies. He demonstrated his courage three weeks ago in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth when, despite being decidedly off his game, he came through to win. He demonstrated his toughness Saturday, performing much better than he did at Monmouth, despite now having made three cross-country trips between Del Mar and the East Coast. And he certainly added to his boast-worthy resume. The Travers was Point Given's fourth consecutive Grade 1 victory and his sixth win in seven starts this year. His failure in the Kentucky Derby, an aberration, is the only blemish on his otherwise stellar record.

But if your idea of greatness is a performance that makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up and takes your breath away, then Point Given still has some work to do. Yes, he was the best in the Travers, but E Dubai and Dollar Bill deserve credit for finishing second and third. E Dubai had never been two turns in this country and was suspect at the 1 1/4-mile distance of the Travers. Even though he had to dispute a realistic early pace, he was still in there punching with Point Given in midstretch. Dollar Bill, in his first start since the Belmont, had a new rider, Jorge Chavez, and blinkers. He finally got the clean trip he had been crying for and was only a little more than a length behind E Dubai at the finish. As a friend pointed out to me, you wouldn't expect a horse to run well in the Kentucky Derby off a layoff since February, and that was just the kind of layoff Dollar Bill brought into the Travers.

Point Given continues to offer tantalizing hints that we haven't seen his best. It looked like he wanted to lay all over E Dubai in the stretch much as he did with Congaree in the stretch of the Preakness. He didn't change to his proper lead until the eighth pole, when he began to pull away. He still acts like a big, goofy kid, and top older horses like Tiznow and the Belmont Park-loving Albert the Great may not be as indulging should they meet him down the road in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

I remember Seattle Slew. Despite sweeping the 1977 Triple Crown and remaining undefeated, he had more than his share of skeptics. I remember the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup, the next to last race of Seattle Slew's career, when he broke through the gate before the start, dueled through suicidal fractions for a 1 1/2- mile race, blew the turn for home, lost the lead to Exceller, and came back on him late to miss by a nose. It was one of those rare races that is etched in your memory forever, and it sealed Seattle Slew's greatness even in the minds of his critics. I wouldn't dare compare Point Given to Seattle Slew. But if Point Given does learn how to make all the pieces fit, then he may yet make the hair on the back of our necks stand up.