08/28/2001 12:00AM

A flesh-and-blood grand prix racer


DEL MAR, Calif. - In "Faster," by Jackie Stewart, the former world champion grand prix driver tried to describe exactly what it felt like to take a turn at high speed in his Tyrell Ford:

"The fastest way to round a corner doesn't depend just on how late you brake but also on how early you take them off, so that the car is nice and gentle as it goes through. And also not just where you take the brakes off but how - you must feed them off gently, letting the car settle so that nothing is abrupt, so that its balance is preserved, its rhythms not addled."

Gary Stevens knows exactly what Stewart was talking about. Even though he deals with a different brand of horsepower, the jockey must concern himself with the same elements of torque and balance, acceleration and steering, and walking the tightrope between cool control and open-throttled frenzy.

He knows this because he rides Point Given.

Two days after Stevens and Point Given put on their show in the Travers Stakes, the rider was back home in Del Mar, hanging around the paddock on a sleepy afternoon. Stevens had no mounts on the card, which worked out fine, since it gave him the chance to sit quietly and share the nuts and bolts of handling a flamboyant beast like Point Given.

"I ride him three inches longer than any other horse," Stevens began, referring to the length of his stirrup leathers. "That's because of his size, how broad he is across the back. If I ride him at my normal length, I feel like I'm pinching his withers, and his stride is not as long. The first time I got on him, my knees were clear up to my chest."

Last Saturday, Point Given balked behind the starting gate, just as he did before the Haskell. How did Stevens react?

"I was worried," he said. "If we ever run into a problem where he's getting the upper hand, then we're all in trouble, because he's so big. I tried to soothe him, tried to make him think that any decision I made was his idea. If you've read Monty Roberts, it's the advance-and-retreat theory. I'll retreat, retreat, retreat until he asks me to do something.

"I'm always trying to analyze what his next move is going to be. I can pretty much tell by the muscles in his back. They tense up, he gets his hind legs up underneath him, and his head comes up. I've usually got about a three-second warning."

Point Given entered the starting stall without further fuss. Stevens continued: "Once he gets in the starting gate, he becomes as focused as I am. I can feel his shoulder muscles tense, his back muscles relax, and he tenses his hindquarters. That tells me he's ready to break."

Last Saturday, he broke a half step slow.

"I gave him one slap on the shoulder to get him into the bridle, so I could get him balanced. If he doesn't come into the bridle, up against the bit where it is pulling against the mouth, then anything can happen. He could reach up and step on himself, or overreact in some way."

Point Given responded and gave Stevens the position he wanted around the first turn. From there it became a matter of when to take on the leader, E Dubai.

"The best horses I've ridden are great turn runners, and he's probably the best turn runner I've ever ridden," Stevens said. "When he hits a turn and switches onto his left lead, he dramatically lengthens his stride. That's where you break hearts, on the turn."

Stevens kept his hands still as they raced around the turn, dogging E Dubai. Then it came time to ask Point Given for a lead change. Sometimes it's not pretty.

"I do have to help him change leads, and he's been criticized for that," Stevens said. "People think it's a flaw in him. My feeling is, a horse that big needs room to change leads. It's not necessarily a natural thing to do. It's hard work, because there's so much of a weight shift.

"Coming into the stretch I steered him out and away from E Dubai to give him extra space. I've got two fingers on the reins and my stick in the right hand. I put about 10 pounds of pressure on the outside rein to shift his head a little.

"Then, just as we entered the stretch, I pulled my stick into my left hand and hit him one time - gave him the full Monty - and he accelerated. But he didn't switch leads. I cracked him one more time and still didn't get his attention.

"So now I pull his head to the right ever so slightly, maybe four inches, and my weight is leaning slightly to the left side. Then I gave him a quick snap back to the left, shifting my weight to the right. That forced him to change leads, yet still kept him in a straight line. But when you're dealing with a horse that weighs over 1,200 pounds, and you've made him shift his weight against his will, you're going to get kind of a funny reaction.

"From my perspective, he switches leads very smoothly," Stevens added.

"It doesn't feel like it looks at all. But it seems like it takes about three seconds, all in midair, almost like a flying lead change from a dressage horse. Then he goes from a head or a neck in front to 3 1/2 in front, just like he did against E Dubai.

"After that he knows that I know he's got the race won. I stay busy enough to let him know when he's hit the finish line, but I never like to punish my horse. Anyway, I don't think I could ever hurt him, but I might piss him off, and I definitely don't want to do that.

"As soon as he pulls up, his ears go straight up. He stops and surveys the whole track and starts strutting like he hasn't done a thing. I think he's got so much pent-up energy that racing is like his release. I can almost hear him go 'ahhhhh' afterwards, like he just got his fix. He really seems to enjoy what he's doing. At least those are the vibes he gives me."

Same vibes for the rest of us. Even Stevens wonders how good Point Given can be.

"When you're a kid growing up," he said, "you think about riding Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, or whatever. This horse is my Secretariat."

Yes, but Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed all won the Triple Crown. Point Given could do no better than fifth in the Derby, his only losing effort this year.

"If he'd become inconsistent after that, the Derby might bother me more," Stevens said. "But the more he does, it bothers me less and less. I just don't want him to know how good he really is . . . yet."