06/11/2001 12:00AM

Point Given: Just one race shy of immortality


New York - Now we know how racing fans must have felt in 1967, when, after picking a most inopportune time to be flat and finishing third as the 8-5 favorite in the Kentucky Derby, Damascus came back to win the Preakness and Belmont Stakes easily.

Now we know how racing fans must have felt in 1955, when, after being beaten in the Derby as the 6-5 favorite by Swaps, Nashua came back to win the Preakness and dominate in the Belmont.

And, now we know how racing fans must have felt in 1953 when, after a brutal head defeat as the 3-5 favorite in the Derby, Native Dancer came back to take the Preakness and Belmont.

When the Triple Crown was over in those years, racing fans must have felt that they witnessed a 3-year-old who was worthy of being a Triple Crown winner, but who was never in a position for racing immortality because, for one reason or another, he lost the first leg, a race he was expected to win. It is an empty, almost cheated kind of feeling, very different from the kind of feeling racing fans have when a Triple Crown bid is derailed in the Belmont. We know the feeling today in the wake of Point Given's tour de force in Saturday's Belmont Stakes.

Point Given was more superior in the Preakness than his 2 1/4-length margin suggested because of the powerful second and third quarter miles he ran in that race, but he left nothing to the imagination Saturday. Point Given hit the wire a little more than 12 lengths in front, and the race was over long before then. When Point Given cruised up to the lead going into the far turn, a full half-mile from the finish, this Belmont was history.

Point Given has now manhandled every other 3-year-old that matters, and in some instances, he has done it more than once. Simply put, there isn't another member of his generation that is in the same league.

So Point Given's fifth as the 9-5 favorite in the Derby is more mystifying than ever, and also a little bit distressing. Most everyone would dearly love to see another Triple Crown winner. It would be a tremendous shot in the arm for the game. (It will happen, too. Remember, it was only three years ago that Real Quiet came within a nose of being a Triple Crown winner.) It's just that this year, as in 1967, 1955 and 1953, we saw a colt who was truly Triple Crown-worthy.

Though it won't change anything, there now seems to be an even greater need to know what happened to this colt in Louisville. The most popular explanation is that jockey Gary Stevens rode him too aggressively and had him too close to the Derby's suicidal pace. I don't buy it. Point Given was 2 1/2 lengths behind Congaree after the first quarter mile in the Derby and was three lengths behind him after the half. Point Given made his move at the leaders after Congaree made his move for the lead. Yet, at the finish, he was nearly seven lengths behind Congaree, who finished third. If the excuse is that Point Given was too close to the Derby pace, then you would have to say Congaree ran one of the most monstrous races in Derby history. Congaree is a terrific horse, and he did run a great race at Churchill Downs, but I'm not willing to say he ran one of the best races in Derby history.

I think a much more plausible explanation for Point Given's loss in the Derby was that he had only two prep races going in. There hasn't been a winner of the Derby off just two prep races since Sunny's Halo in 1983, and Sunny's Halo beat a much weaker Derby field than Point Given faced. I think Point Given simply didn't have enough foundation.

Of course, Point Given had only two preps for the Derby so that he would be fresh for both the Preakness and Belmont. In a roundabout way, the plan worked, because he was fresh for the Preakness and Belmont. And, who knows? If Point Given had three preps going into the Derby, maybe he would have won that and the Preakness, but would not have been as fresh and sharp for the Belmont. But it's hard to envision even a less sharp and fresh Point Given being unsuccessful in the Belmont, not after he did what he did Saturday.

Like Damascus, Point Given picked one of the worst times of his life to be uncharacteristically flat. Because he did, he lost his chance at immortality. But Damascus, Nashua, and Native Dancer went on to establish themselves as truly great race horses. It is no small consolation that the door is still wide open for Point Given to do the same.