08/05/2001 11:00PM

Dear Mr. Baffert: Please send Point Given


New York - If I ran the New York Racing Association, I would treat trainer Bob Baffert to dinner every night this week at what is perhaps Saratoga's most exclusive restaurant, The Lodge. I would also give him a lifetime box at Saratoga right at the finish line, and I would also see what I could do about securing him one of those gorgeous homes on North Broadway. In other words, I would do whatever I had to do to get Baffert to commit to running Point Given in the Aug. 25 Travers Stakes. Because if this year's Travers otherwise boils down to Scorpion vs. A P Valentine vs. E Dubai . . . well, it won't be a pretty sight. Then, this Travers wouldn't be close the kind of race that befits its glorious history, or its status as a very near classic.

That isn't to say that Point Given wowed everyone again winning Sunday's Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. He didn't. Point Given's performance in the Haskell wasn't in the same league as his knockout victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes. Still, Point Given remains by far the big name among this year's 3-year-olds, and now that barnmate Congaree is out for the rest of the year after sustaining a wrenched knee that clearly compromised his performance in Saturday's Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga, Point Given is the only member of his generation that really matters.

That's why Point Given's win in the Haskell was surprising in its difficulty. It looked like all he had to do was throw his past performances out on the track and the result would be a six-length victory. It didn't turn out that way. Point Given made his patented mid-backstretch move toward the leaders in the Haskell, but alarms started going off when he didn't overwhelm the field around the far turn as he has in his best races.

Indeed, Point Given struggled all the way from that point home to overtake the pacesetting Touch Tone and out-kick the rallying Burning Roma. The important thing is, he eventually did, and it is to his credit that Point Given managed to win while clearly not delivering his "A" performance. His Beyer Speed Figure of 106, eight points fewer than his Belmont and five fewer than his Preakness, offers further evidence of that.

The Haskell was Point Given's first race in two months. He had to ship east and confront yet another new racing surface. These are all probably mitigating factors in his performance Sunday, and serve as rationalizations as to why the Travers would be at his mercy should he indeed run back in three weeks. That, and what would pass as his opposition in the wake of what transpired in the Jim Dandy.

The story in the Jim Dandy was the defeat of 2-5 favorite Congaree. When Congaree took the lead from the 29-1 Free of Love late on the backstretch, it looked like the Jim Dandy would turn into a runaway. But when Congaree actually gave the lead back to Free of Love around the far turn, and then chucked it after turning for home, it was clear to anyone to had seen his previous races that something was amiss.

In the meantime, Scorpion, who sat behind the disputed pace, shockingly capitalized on his perfect trip. He nailed a courageous Free of Love, who probably isn't running back in the Travers, to record a stakes victory that was implausible even by Saratoga standards.

Given that in his last four stakes attempts, he was beaten 20 1/2 lengths in the Champagne, was ninth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, was beaten 13 lengths as the 9-5 favorite in the Gotham, and was more than 14 lengths back in the Santa Anita Derby, and given Congaree's injury and how Free of Love was softened up on the pace, Scorpion's win in the Jim Dandy must be considered a fluke until proven otherwise.

As for A P Valentine, who finished fourth in the Jim Dandy as the second choice, I just don't understand what's so great about this horse. His only win in the last 10 months was at the expense of a $35,000 claimer. He has been thrashed every other time, including Saturday. It was proclaimed by his people that he was absolutely fit for the Jim Dandy, and now I'm sure we'll hear about how he didn't like the track, or that it was too hot, or something. But, the fact is, with three-eighths of a mile to go, A P Valentine was one length behind Scorpion. At the finish, he was 7 1/2 lengths behind Scorpion. It would be one thing if Scorpion was proven to be a good horse, but the jury is still way out on that one.

So, with the way this year's Travers is shaping up, if I ran NYRA, I would make sure Bob Baffert had an unlimited supply of croissants from Mrs. Londons, I would take him for cocktails at the Adelphi, and get him a big fat gift certificate to Ben and Jerry's. I would do whatever it takes to get Point Given into the Travers, because without him, this great race won't mean a heck of a lot this time around.