05/20/2001 11:00PM

Point Given is ahead - for now

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BALTIMORE - It is always a bit anticlimactic when a Kentucky Derby winner loses the Preakness, as Monarchos did Saturday, because the sport has been deprived of the drama accompanying a Triple Crown pursuit. But racing fans need not fret; the 3-year-olds in this year's classics have proved themselves an excellent group, and they should generate plenty of exciting competition in the months ahead.

Point Given has risen to the head of his class after his authoritative victory at Pimlico. This was not a race in which a horse looked great because the circumstances of the race favored him (as was the case with Monarchos in the Derby). Point Given didn't get any breaks.

The first quarter-mile of the Preakness was run in 23.84 seconds; there hadn't been a slower opening fraction since 1964. The pace should have hindered horses coming from far behind, and Point Given was dead last in the early going. It didn't matter.

Point Given broke from post position 11 and remained at least three-wide all the way around a track where outside posts and wide trips have historically been a disadvantage. This didn't matter, either. Jockey Gary Stevens barely had to urge his mount as he zoomed around the leaders on the turn on the way to his 2 1/4-length victory. The colt has a combination of speed, stamina, and tractability that is going to make him formidable throughout the season.

Yet as good as he looked Saturday, Point Given is no certainty to dominate his age group. By the end of the year, Congaree - the third-place finisher in the Preakness - could easily surpass his stablemate. The late-bloomer, who didn't win his first race until Feb. 28, looked brilliant winning the Wood Memorial Stakes in April and ran at least as well as Monarchos when he finished third in the Derby. Many handicappers dismissed him in the Preakness on the ground that he would bounce - that his form would regress after so many strenuous races in a short period of time.

Congaree did regress but still ran a tenacious race and finished only 2 1/2 lengths behind Point Given. "This wasn't the same Congaree that ran in the Derby," said trainer Bob Baffert. "He wasn't sharp, but he still ran huge. Just shows you what a good horse he is."

Songandaprayer, Millennium Wind and Balto Star may have been momentarily forgotten after being victims of a destructive pace in the Derby, but they are all formidable speed horses.

And, of course, there is Monarchos, who won the second-fastest Kentucky Derby in history before flopping in the Preakness. Most racing fans are surely mystified by his lifeless sixth-place showing, just as they were baffled by Point Given's bad performance as the favorite in the Derby.

Both their trainers have explanations, which happen to be the same one that all trainers give their owners when they can't figure out why a horse lost: "He couldn't get hold of the track."

As Baffert reflected Sunday on the Derby, he said the Churchill Downs track was "too firm" for his big colt. "He likes a track he can get comfortable with," the trainer explained. John Ward said of the loss by Monarchos in the Preakness, "He didn't seem to be taking to the track. He was just uncomfortable." Jockey Jorge Chavez echoed this: "My horse didn't handle the track very well. When I asked, he tried to go, but he was fighting the track."

In the case of Point Given's Derby loss, the explanation seems especially dubious. The colt's best performance as a 2-year-old came in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile - at Churchill Downs. According to my speed-figure calculations, the speed of that Churchill track was almost identical to that on Derby day. Moreover, Point Given had dazzled clockers with his training at Churchill before the Derby. He hadn't shown any dislike for the racing strip before his defeat.

Ward brought Monarchos to Pimlico early to acclimate him to the track. He seemed completely satisfied with the horse's training. He thought Monarchos was galloping so strong that there was no need to give him a conventional fast workout. Although there was some rain on the morning of the Preakness, the speed of the racing surface was little different from what it had been throughout the week. So it is difficult to accept the explanation that the track caused his dismal showing.

The most plausible explanation for Point Given's turnabout is that he is more effective running from off the pace. Perhaps some physical problem was bothering Monarchos. In any case, the hoary he-couldn't-handle-the-track alibi shouldn't be used on behalf of these outstanding horses. It's beneath their dignity.

(c) 2001, The Washington Post