09/02/2001 11:00PM

Point Given: Another gone all too soon

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WASHINGTON - It has become a depressingly familiar scenario: A Thoroughbred displays special talent, generating excitement and anticipation that he might become a genuinely great racehorse. But then he departs from the sport prematurely, without fulfilling his potential and depriving the game of a star it desperately needs.

Point Given is the latest horse whose career has ended much too soon. Trainer Bob Baffert announced the 3-year-old's retirement Friday after discovering a strain in the tendon of his left front leg. The big, strong colt had seemed almost indestructible, but the injury was one that would have sidelined him for six months. If Baffert had tried to bring him back, Point Given would have lost much of his 4-year-old season before he could perform at his top level. So Baffert and the colt's owner, Prince Ahmed Salman of Saudi Arabia, had no realistic choice but to retire him.

Point Given will go to stud with nine victories in 13 starts and earnings of nearly $4 million. He was arguably the best 2-year-old of 2000, though a photo-finish defeat in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile cost him official recognition as champion of his generation. He lost only one race after that, when he delivered an uncharacteristically dull performance in the Kentucky Derby.

Point Given demonstrated the Derby loss was a fluke, and he would have been a worthy Triple Crown winner. He made a powerful move to capture the Preakness and ran away with the Belmont Stakes by more than a dozen lengths. He followed with victories in the Haskell Handicap at Monmouth and the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, becoming the first horse to win four $1 million races in a row.

With the natural speed to run head-and-head against a fast sprinter and the stamina to finish powerfully at 1 1/2 miles, Point Given was beginning to look almost invincible.

"We all dream of having a Secretariat or a great horse," Baffert said. "He was on the cutting edge of breaking through."

Yet Point Given did not get that chance. Future generations will not look at his overall record and say: "This was a great one."

The colt never competed outside his age group and hardly proved he was a racing immortal with victories over E Dubai, Touch Tone, A P Valentine, and Crafty C. T. - the forgettable runners-up in his major victories. Point Given's times were not so spectacular that one could project that he would crush any challenger.

The definitive tests were still ahead for Point Given, who was supposed to run in the Breeders' Cup Classic in October and the $6 million Dubai World Cup next spring. The Breeders' Cup had promised to be an epic confrontation: America's best horse against Europe's best, the sensational, undefeated 3-year-old Galileo.

Unfortunately, racing fans are all too accustomed to dramas that don't materialize. The bane of the modern sport is its inability to keep star performers on the stage. This is not a natural state of affairs. Every one of the great 3-year-old champions of the 1970's ended his career in the race in which he was intended to end it; none was sidelined prematurely by an injury. As a result, the sport had recognizable heroes and great races - Secretariat vs. Riva Ridge, Seattle Slew vs. Affirmed, Affirmed vs. Spectacular Bid - that helped give it widespread popularity.

But Point Given will be the eighth 3-year-old champion in the past 18 years whose career did not last to the end of his 3-year-old season.

The fragility of these athletes may be in part because of liberal medication policies that allow infirm horses to succeed on the track and then go to stud, where they pass on infirmities to their offspring. It may be because of the practices of modern breeders, who raise horses to sell them in an auction ring rather than to run them. As a result, they are more concerned about producing an animal whose pedigree will look good than one who will be a tough, durable athlete.

Not only are the animals less robust, but economics encourage owners to retire horses early. The most talked-about 3-year-old of last season, Fusaichi Pegasus, went to stud after a nine-race career; the brilliant War Chant was retired after seven races. Owners don't want to run a horse who might get hurt when they can obtain millions of dollars in risk-free stud fees.

The end of Point Given's career was especially poignant for the sport. The colt was beginning to develop genuine star quality. He lured a record crowd of more than 47,000 to Monmouth for the Haskell and more than 60,000 to Saratoga for the Travers. His confrontation with Galileo promised to be memorable. Most racing fans surely share the pain felt by Salman and Baffert.

"This is a big blow," Baffert said, "not only for us but for the racing community. You wait all your life for a horse like this, then he gets snatched from you and you feel cheated."

(c)2001, The Washington Post