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Updated on 09/15/2011 1:22PM
Monarchos vs. Point Given III
ELMONT, N.Y. - As rivalries go, this one has been more theory than fact. Monarchos and Point Given have established themselves as the best of an outstanding crop of 3-year-olds, yet in their two previous meetings, one has run well, while the other has been as flat as week-old soda water.
Monarchos won the Kentucky Derby, in which Point Given finished fifth. Point Given won the Preakness Stakes, in which Monarchos was sixth. On Saturday at Belmont Park, they will square off for a third time in the 133rd Belmont Stakes, a race that should determine the division's leader at the midway point of the year. It is the first time that Derby and Preakness winners have faced one another in the Belmont since 1994.
Seven others are in the 1 1/2-mile Belmont, the longest of the Triple Crown races, encompassing one lap of sprawling Belmont Park. Several have beaten either Monarchos or Point Given in previous races. Yet if Point Given runs back to his best races, such as the Preakness or Santa Anita Derby, or if Monarchos runs like he did in the Kentucky Derby or Florida Derby, it will take a career-best performance from any of the other 3-year-olds to compete for the winner's share of $600,000 from the $1 million purse.
Point Given, owned by Prince Ahmed Salman's The Thoroughbred Corporation, and Monarchos, owned by John Oxley, are the first two choices on the early line set by Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper. He has Point Given at 7-5, with Monarchos at 3-1. Every horse in the race carries 126 pounds and runs as a separate betting interest.
The Belmont will be televised live by NBC Sports from 5 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. Eastern time, with post time for the Belmont scheduled for 6:04 p.m. It is the 10th race on a 12-race card that begins at 12:30 and has five supporting stakes races, featuring such nationally prominent runners as City Zip, Flame Thrower, King Cugat, and the champion turf mare Perfect Sting. The Belmont is one leg of a $1 million guaranteed pick six, and a pick four with a guaranteed pool of $250,000. It also is the second leg of a daily double bet linked to Friday's Acorn Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.
The forecast is for terrific weather, partly cloudy skies and a high in the upper 70's. A crowd of 67,810 attended last year's Belmont, when neither the Derby nor Preakness winners participated. This year's race is far more compelling, both in terms of the rivalry and the overall depth of quality of this field.
The battle between Monarchos and Point Given has yet to play itself out in the manner of Affirmed vs. Alydar, or even Real Quiet vs. Victory Gallop. But behind the scenes, there is plenty of tension brewing between John T. Ward Jr., who trains Monarchos, and Bob Baffert, who trains Point Given.
After the Derby, Ward, a native of Kentucky, said his victory was "for tradition." Baffert, who switched over from Quarter Horses a little more than a decade ago, took that as a knock on his training, which emphasizes fast works. "I guess that's why I'm having a bad year," he said sarcastically.
Before the Preakness, Ward theorized that Point Given's Derby flop was because the colt was "going through a very strong growth process." Ward has been far more effusive in his praise of Baffert's other top 3-year-old, Congaree, who is passing the Belmont after finishing third in both the Derby and Preakness. They even disagree over whether there will ever be another Triple Crown winner. Baffert says yes, Ward no.
This week, Ward said he thought horses who have not trained at Belmont Park coming into this race are at a disadvantage. Monarchos has been here for more than two weeks while Point Given just got here Wednesday.
"None of his theories bother me," Baffert said. "I just worry about Point Given. I just worry about my horse. He needs to remember that this is about the horse, not the trainer. You shouldn't forget that. I think you should let the horses do the bragging for you."
One thing both Baffert and Ward agree on is quality of this year's crop of 3-year-olds in general, and this Belmont field specifically. "It might be the most qualified Belmont, in terms of the number of Grade 1 winners," Ward said. "These are really good horses," Baffert said. "It's one of the toughest Belmont's we've seen in awhile."
The nine runners will break right in front of the grandstand. Balto Star, who drew post 2, "will be on the lead, I'm sure of that," said his trainer, Todd Pletcher. Balto Star will try to lead from start to finish, as he did in the Arkansas Derby. Buckle Down Ben should be closest to him early, but his lack of success at the top level could prove his undoing by the far turn.
Point Given will be allowed to lope along at his own pace early, but figures to start picking off horses down the backstretch. Monarchos also needs to start gaining at that point, too, but he is unlikely to be as far back in the Belmont as he was in the Derby and Preakness. "I don't see the Belmont winner coming from way out of it," Ward said.
Invisible Ink, the Derby runner-up, will try to wear down his rivals with his relentless, galloping stride. "He's pretty consistent. He runs his race every time," said his trainer, Pletcher, who is the only trainer with two horses in the Belmont.
Dollar Bill will be hoping for his first trouble-free trip since Pat Day took over as his jockey for the Louisiana Derby. He showed an explosive turn of foot at the end of the Preakness, and should make his move on the far turn in the Belmont.
A P Valentine is another who figures to make his move on the final turn. He was second in the Preakness, and is unbeaten in two previous starts at Belmont Park.
Thunder Blitz finished powerfully to be fourth in the Derby, and could come from far back again, though new rider Jerry Bailey figures to have him closer than usual.
Dr Greenfield, an invader from Europe, is a steady galloper whose style should be similar to that of Invisible Ink. He has never faced horses of this caliber, but the one time he raced on dirt, in Britain, he won. He also figures to thrive at the distance.