06/06/2001 11:00PM

Point Given adds spice to gallop


ELMONT, N.Y. - The morning after Bob Baffert saw the biggest hit on Broadway, the three-time Eclipse Award winning-trainer was treated to a different kind of show.

Once again Baffert's Preakness winner, Point Given, injected a dose of theatrics into a routine gallop as he reared up and tossed exercise rider Pepe Aragon while walking under the shedrow Thursday at Belmont Park

Compared to the acrobatic displays Point Given put on before the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, his performance two days before Saturday's $1 million Belmont Stakes was relatively tame. While walking around the barn in anticipation of his trip to the racetrack, Point Given reared up on his back legs and Aragon quickly pushed the ejection button. Point Given was quickly placed under control by his handlers and Aragon jumped back on board.

Crisis averted.

"This was nothing," said Aragon, who has been Point Given's exercise rider since last year. "I knew what was happening and jumped off. I've been around him enough that I can tell when he's going to do it. His body starts getting big and I know what's coming."

Baffert, too, is learning to take Point Given's feisty habits in stride - well, sort of.

"[Point Given] is just feeling good," said Baffert, who spent the previous night watching the Broadway smash "The Producers." "Pepe got off before the fireworks began. Once [Point Given] does something like that he tips us off that he's feeling good. He's fine . . . anyone can train this horse, unless they have a heart condition."

If Baffert's nerves were rattled, they were soothed by the graceful manner in which Point Given cruised around the track in his first effort as a 3-year-old at a track where he finished second to fellow Belmont starter A P Valentine in last year's Champagne Stakes.

"He went around the track in great shape," Aragon said. "It was a great trip."

Aragon, who was also aboard Point Given during his wilder and more frightening incidents at the Derby and Preakness, believes The Thoroughbred Corporation colt is coming up to the final leg of the Triple Crown in superb condition.

"[In the Belmont] he's finally going to show how good he is," Aragon said.

Nor has Baffert seen anything to indicate that the 7-5 favorite to win the Belmont will turn in a repeat of his baffling, fifth-place finish as the betting favorite in the Kentucky Derby.

"[Point Given] is the toughest one I've brought to the Belmont," said Baffert, who saw the Triple Crown hopes of Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998) evaporate with second-place finishes in the 1 1/2-mile final and longest leg of the Triple Crown. "After the Preakness, he looked like he had just worked five-eighths. He's looking as good as Real Quiet did before the Belmont and I thought I had that one in the bag."

A P Valentine gives Zito a scare

Not to be outdone, A P Valentine, who was second to Point Given in the Preakness, also added some excitement to his morning gallop.

While going past the finish line at the end of his work, the 3-year-old son of A. P. Indy was spooked by the sight of cameramen near the rail and tried to run off. He was quickly reined in, but not before trainer Nick Zito had sufficient cause to swallow several antacid tablets.

"Everything was going perfectly until he saw those cameras," Zito said.

Aside from being camera shy, Zito said there has been little not to like about the way A P Valentine has been acting since returning to his Belmont Park home base.

"He will run a big race Saturday," Zito predicted.

Though the 1 1/2 miles of the Belmont is uncharted territory for all of Saturday's nine starters, Zito is confident his horse's breeding (by the 1992 Belmont winner out of an Alydar mare) will only be an asset when the field turns for home.

"His breeding says there's no reason he can't go 1 1/2 miles and that means a lot," Zito said. "There's a lot of great horses in his pedigree."

A P Valentine was 12th after the opening quarter while finishing a troubled seventh in the Derby and sixth in the early stages of the Preakness, but, with Balto Star the only real speedster in the field, Zito expects jockey Victor Espinoza to closer to the lead in the Belmont.

"This horse is pretty sharp. I think we'll probably be fourth on the backstretch," Zito said. "That's what I like about [Espinoza]. He doesn't wait for anyone. I just hope all the pieces fit into place."

Stewart crosses his fingers

Trainer Dallas Stewart, again, said Thursday he hopes for good racing luck with the snake-bitten Dollar Bill. In three of his last four races, including the Kentucky Derby (in which he was 15th) and Preakness (4th), Dollar Bill has endured trips that were nightmares along the lines of a Freddy Krueger movie.

Perhaps, Stewart hopes, Belmont Park's sweeping turns will finally provide Dollar Bill with a smooth passage around the racetrack.

"You'd like to think we could get a smooth trip here," Stewart said. "We need a little luck, but the only way to get it is to keep rolling the dice and keep on trying. I would think this race would suit him just fine.

Dollar Bill, who galloped 1 1/4 miles Thursday, has put Stewart's easy-going demeanor to the test, yet the 41-year-old trainer remains remarkably upbeat going into yet another chance for Dollar Bill to run into trouble.

"I've always been a positive guy and that helps you get through something like this," Stewart said. "You have to be realistic in this game and understand what can happen. You can't (b.s.) yourself. That's when you get in trouble."

Lukas expects 'Ben' to buckle down

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has won the Belmont four times, including last year, says past performances place his Belmont starter, Buckle Down Ben, at somewhere at 30- to 50-1 in the morning line.

"That's where I'd place him in the morning line," said Lukas, whose horse was listed as the 50-1 rank outsider in Mike Watchmaker's Daily Racing Form line.

Yet Lukas believes there's more to his horse than you'll find in the PPs.

"I don't think he's a 50-1 shot," Lukas said. "He's better than those odds. If I didn't think he had a legitimate shot, I wouldn't be here. I'm not saying he'll win, but I think he'll run a solid race. He won't embarrass himself and if things fall apart, like they can in the Belmont, he can win the race."

Lukas pulled off an 18-1 shocker in the 2000 Belmont with Commendable, but Buckle Down Ben figures to go off at longer odds. Though he comes off an allowance victory at Churchill Downs, Buckle Down Ben's two efforts in Grade 1 and 2 stakes gave little evidence that he can compete with America's best 3-year-olds. In the Grade 1 Florida Derby, he was fifth, beaten 10 lengths, and after that, in his first start for Lukas, he was sixth, beaten 25 3/4 lengths by Balto Star in the Grade 2 Spiral Stakes.