09/05/2001 11:00PM

The parade's gone by (for now)


DEL MAR, Calif. - There were two parades at Del Mar on Wednesday. One of them celebrated the past. The other, not by coincidence, was called a futurity.

"I shouldn't have tranquilized him," said Bob Baffert as Point Given was led into the Del Mar walking ring by his groom, Roberto Luna. "I should have let him come in here on his back legs and really given the fans a show."

Jim Barnes, Baffert's sober-minded assistant, just looked at his boss and shook his head. Sometimes, it's hard to tell when Bob is kidding. There were days when Point Given would climb on top of Barnes and his pony on the way to the track. Photographers from coast to coast had pictures of Point Given up in the air, pawing at the sky, with Dana Barnes or Pepe Aragon clinging to his back like Airstreams riding out a Texas tornado.

"Didn't you say the prince wanted to lead him in?" Barnes offered. "Yeah," Baffert replied. "When I told him we would tranquilize the colt, he said, 'Good.' "

On this particular day of days, Prince Ahmed Salman wore his white linen suit with the green and black striped tie, a near perfect match of his racing silks. Baffert was adorned in a snappy jacket and matching yellow tie and slacks, which probably would have gotten him pounded to a pulp by the cowpokes back at Prescott Downs, but which looked just fine on a Wednesday at Del Mar. Point Given, as usual, wore red.

"Look at him," Salman said as Point Given paused to pose. "This is very hard for me. But it has happened before. My English Derby winner, Oath, broke down after that race and never ran again. You can only hope to get lucky again. And I have been very lucky."

Point Given's final public appearance provided a dramatic lesson in the cold, hard realities of the racing business. Here was a breathtaking Thoroughbred specimen, muscles rippling and tight, his coat aglow with health, suffering from an injury so slight that a human athlete would plow ahead without a second thought.

Had his thick, white polo bandages been removed, Point Given's injured leg would have appeared no different from the others. His vet, Dr. Vince Baker, explained exactly what went wrong, just below the left knee.

"The superficial flexor tendon there should measure a circumference of one square centimeter, in all horses, all the time. His was 1.3, about 30 percent larger," Baker said.

"That was just inflammation, or tendinitis," Baker went on, "and it could have been just a swelling between fibers. But at 2A, a little further down, he did have tearing in the tendon, a lesion in the fiber pattern."

The lesion was discovered through an ultrasound scan of the leg. It was tiny, but it was unmistakable. Dr. Baker's reaction when he saw it can not be printed in a family newspaper. Given the beast involved - and the economics of his stallion value - any dreams of a comeback were useless.

"You have to remember what supports the lower limb of the horse," Baker said. "You've got two tendons and a ligament. That's it. And in his case, that one leg has to bear 1,270 pounds going 40 miles per hour. Tendons are like rubber bands, built to give and take. But when they heal, they don't heal with the same elasticity, because fibrous tissue is more of a conglomeration."

It is the advancement of diagnostic technology that hastened the retirement of Point Given. Before the use of ultrasound, soft tissue damage had to be grossly evident, at least through deep palpation, before a tendon was considered damaged enough to stop a horse. Point Given's tendon was damaged at its core, which would have been even harder to detect in the past.

"When we get a core lesion like his, surrounded by healthy tissue, he probably could have gone on and run, and it probably would not have hurt him," Baker noted. "Tendons are not an injury where a horse goes down. But knowing what we did, it was just not worth it."

Defined now as a breeding specimen, Point Given represents all that is frustrating about a sport that demands fast horses and then moans when they blow a tire. It should be fairly clear by now that the Thoroughbred is an animal designed for speed, and not durability.

Still, we allow our hearts to be broken, again and again, when a star is taken prematurely from the stage. Haven't we learned by now that the end is only a matter of time and circumstance? Apparently, we haven't. Obviously, we are suckers for romance. Point Given had barely left the track, and the rapture was cranking up anew.

His name is Officer. He is an undefeated 2-year-old, and what he did to the Del Mar Futurity late Wednesday afternoon was a crime. Young horses are not supposed to be able to gallop seven furlongs in 1:22 and change, but that's essentially what he did in winning for the fourth time in his brief career. Also, he is trained by Bob Baffert and owned by Ahmed Salman, who bought him last March for $700,000.

"He has eased the pain of losing Point Given," Salman said as Officer left the winner's circle. "Maybe I will change his name. I will call him Mr. Painkiller."