Updated on 09/15/2011 12:14PM

Judging trainers' choices is never easy


COLUMBIA, Md. - Before he sent out Point Given in the Santa Anita Derby, trainer Bob Baffert gave these instructions to his jockey, Gary Stevens: "Get him really tired. Then I won't have to do too much with him to prepare for the Kentucky Derby."

Stevens faithfully followed those instructions, going all out to chase a speedy pacesetter, Crafty C.T., run him down, and push on to a big Beyer Speed Figure of 110. It struck me as strange at the time that Baffert would urge his jockey to go out of his way to tire a horse who had raced only once in the past 3 1/2 months. But, what do I know? I'm not a trainer. Surely Baffert knows what he's doing.

Ten days later, Baffert worked Point Given a bullet four furlongs in 46.80 seconds. A week later, he turned in a 59.60 for five furlongs. And five days before the Derby he had a bullet breeze in 58.20 at Churchill Downs. These works seemed to build speed for a race where it looked like closers would have the edge. Was Point Given poorly and inconsistently prepared?

I can't answer those questions. But it does illustrate a truism about handicapping: The game is as much about people as it is about horses.

Bob Baffert has a proven record of success in Triple Crown races. We handicappers can be skeptical, but, after all, we're not trainers. We're not around the horse day after day. We can only guess whether a horse is being properly handled.

Take Congaree. I thought Baffert may have been rushing him prematurely into the Derby. But the horse ran extremely well. Now we have to ask the question again: Is it wise to run Congaree right back in Saturday's Preakness with only two weeks' rest after such an exhausting effort in the Derby? Will he bounce after these back-to-back, lifetime-best Beyers of 108 and 109? I do know this: I wouldn't bet that he will be at his best in the Preakness.

Consider another horse that I thought was being mishandled: City Zip. Once trainer Linda Rice and the colt's owners finally accepted that he was not a distance horse, they didn't give him a break from training. Instead, they brought him back just one month after the Florida Derby and ran him in the Bay Shore. As I expected, he ran sluggishly, earning a terrible Beyer Figure of 77. Still they wouldn't give the horse a break. Instead, they brought him back one month later - this time in the six-furlong Hirsch Jacobs on Pimlico Special day. I bet against him with complete confidence. He won easily by three lengths, chasing and dueling for the lead, drawing off strongly, and earning a Beyer of 104. In this case, trainer Linda Rice clearly knew best about her horse.

Handicappers have to make decisions like this every day. Judging trainer intent and motivation is an integral part of handicapping. You have to know your people, not just your horses.

Look at the recent record of trainer Alan Goldberg and Jayeff B. Stable:

* Spicy Girl won at Laurel by 2 3/4 lengths at 9-5 on March 22. When she ran back again at 4-5, she finished fourth.

* Navesink returned after a layoff to trounce a New York turf field, paying $13.20 on May 9.

* Cantkeepfromsingin won after a long layoff in a Belmont maiden race on May 11, paying $5.60.

* Talike, a first-time starter (trained by Goldberg, but with a different owner), won by 7 1/4 lengths at Delaware on May 13, paying $7.40.

* Bound to Be Great overcame an impossible trip at Delaware to win first time out, paying $8.60 on April 28.

When Goldberg ran Bound to Be Great back only two weeks later, and aggressively stretched him out to 1 1/16 miles, you had to ask if he was asking too much, too soon from this obviously talented horse. I concluded that he was. Goldberg and his owners clearly excel in bringing young horses back off layoffs; you could make a good living just following these maneuvers. But this ambitious placement of Bound to be Great just didn't look right to me.

This time I was correct. Bound to be Great ran sluggishly, needing to be pushed along on the backstretch just to keep up. He finished a well-beaten fourth. If you have doubts about what a trainer is doing - even elite trainers like Bob Baffert - you just might be right. You need to know your people. After all, the people call the plays. The horses just run.