05/20/2001 11:00PM

Point Given-Monarchos rivalry heats up

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BALTIMORE - Monarchos and Point Given have been in the same race twice.

Yet, with two legs of the Triple Crown in the books, trying to decide which is the better horse comes down to a coin flip.

Heads Point Given. Tails Monarchos.

Monarchos won the Florida Derby by 4 1/2 lengths.

Point Given won the Santa Anita Derby by 5 1/2 lengths.

Monarchos won the Kentucky Derby by 4 3/4 lengths as Point Given flopped and finished fifth on a racetrack he didn't like.

Point Given won the Preakness by 2 1/4 lengths as Monarchos floundered over a racetrack he loathed and wound up sixth.

With talk of a long-awaited Triple Crown sweep shelved until 2002, the question of leadership of the 3-year-old division has now become the paramount issue.

Usually the Derby and Preakness can help settle the matter. But while this year's Triple Crown has provided two stages for two star performers, each time one of the stars has suffered stage-fright.

So who's in front after the first two jewels of the Triple Crown? Where's the coin?

John T. Ward Jr., trainer of Monarchos, says it's heads.

"I'm behind," Ward said Sunday morning outside the Pimlico stakes barn, "with a long season to go."

In Ward's opinion the battle for the 3-year-old crown will probably be as bitterly contested as the last Presidential election. The only difference being that instead of sorting through every last chad, the Eclipse Award will be on the line in the season-ending Breeders' Cup Classic at Belmont Park on Oct. 27.

"That question will not be answered until [the Breeders' Cup]," Ward said. "This is a strong, strong group of 3-year-olds. We'll find out who's left standing at the end of the season."

Another fairly important race at Belmont Park, the $1 million Belmont Stakes, could speed up the sorting out process, if both Monarchos and Point Given show up - literally and figuratively.

Ward said Monarchos will ship to New York on either Wednesday or Thursday, while Bob Baffert, trainer of Point Given, hedged a bit, saying his horse would probably run in the June 9 final leg of the Triple Crown, if . . .

"Point Given is looking good today," said Baffert, who shipped Point Given and stablemate Congaree, the third-place finisher in the Preakness, to his Kentucky base Sunday morning. "I'd like to go to the Belmont, but he has to be doing really, really well. Probably we'll go, unless I don't like the way he's training. I won't make that call for about a week. I'll go back to California then come back to Kentucky to see him and monitor him."

Rather than saying the Preakness vaulted his horse past Monarchos, Baffert chose to paint the Belmont as a rubber match between two budding rivals who haven't yet picked up on the Affirmed-Alydar concept of head-to-head competition.

"The question will be answered on Belmont Stakes Day when they come down the stretch . . . if they both show up," Baffert said. "I think it will be a great rivalry between these two horses. It will be great for racing."

Both Ward and Baffert agreed on the notion that their horse's failure in a Triple Crown race had nothing to do with a lack of ability.

The Preakness proved to Baffert that Point Given's 11 1/2-length loss as the betting favorite in the Derby was due to a rock-hard racetrack he didn't like and jockey Gary Stevens's decision to hustle the The Thoroughbred Corporation colt into record-breaking middle fractions.

"The track [at Churchill Downs] was too firm for him. Had he run a bad race in the Preakness, then I would have known it was a physical problem. It wasn't the way I trained him," said Baffert, whose colt had also been the subject of rumors about a suspect left rear foot. "Other horses loved that track; Point Given didn't. He's too big and hits he track too hard."

Stevens learned his lesson from the Derby, keeping Point Given ninth in a field of 11 after a tepid 23.84 seconds opening quarter (he was 6th of 17 after a 22.25 quarter in the longer Derby) before making a strong move toward the lead on the backstretch that would propel the 2-1 betting favorite to victory.

"On the backside, Gary let him in get his own stride so [Point Given] could tell him when he wanted to go," Baffert said.

Baffert also wondered out loud if using the Santa Anita Derby, with its four-week gap between the Kentucky Derby, was the proper spot to give Point Given his second and final prep for the Run for the Roses.

"Maybe, if I look back, I should have run Congaree in the Santa Anita Derby and Point Given in the Wood. This way he would have had just three weeks between races," said Baffert, who won the Wood with Congaree. "You never know."

There were no maybes from Ward about Monarchos's dismal effort in the Preakness. About 10 seconds into the race, he was ready to raise a white flag.

"About 10 jumps before the finish line the first time around, when [jockey Jorge Chavez] twice asked him to go to his right lead at the eighth pole and he didn't do it, I knew we were dead meat," Ward said. "He was uncomfortable at that point.

"It's not frustrating how he ran, it's just the nature of the beast in racing."

Baffert said Stonerside Stable's Congaree, who was third in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, will not shoot for a hat trick. Congaree, who has run just six times, will be given a rest and will probably be targeted for the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. Beyond that, Baffert said he may test Congaree on the turf with an eye toward running him in the Breeders' Cup Mile on the grass.

"Congaree ran his heart out again," said Baffert, who has won the Preakness three times since 1997 and owns five victories in Triple Crown races. "We'll freshen him up and maybe show up in the Haskell. Maybe we'll try him in a grass mile down the road."

Preakness runner-up A P Valentine and Dollar Bill, who was fourth in the Preakness despite yet another bad trip, both have the Belmont on their agendas.

A P Valentine won a pair of races at Belmont Park last year, topped by a 1 3/4-length victory over Point Given in the Champagne Stakes.

"I'm very thankful that he ran as strong a second as he did," said Nick Zito, the New York-based trainer of A P Valentine, who was seventh in the Kentucky Derby. "Now he's back on track and will leave for Belmont [Sunday] and all we have to hope for is three good weeks."

Among the new/old faces who might also be on hand for the 1 1/2-mile Belmont are Invisible Ink, who was second in the Kentucky Derby, Thunder Blitz (fourth in the Derby), Balto Star (14th), trainer D. Wayne Lukas's Buckle Down Ben, E Dubai, who earned a 107 Beyer Speed Figure in a May 11 allowance race at Belmont Park and is scheduled to run in Saturday's Peter Pan at Belmont, European invader Dr Greenfield, and recent Belmont allowance race winner Dayton Flyer.

As for some of the also-rans in the Preakness, Griffinite (fifth in the Preakness) will bypass the Belmont Stakes and be stabled as Saratoga; Richly Blended (ninth), the early pacesetter in the Preakness, will go back to sprinting; and Percy Hope (10th), who would collect a $1 million bonus for winning a Triple Crown race, will be pointed toward the Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows on July 6.

Nor do the other three Preakness starters, Marciano, Bay Eagle and Mr. John, figure to be a part of the final leg of a Triple Crown season that has left some folks searching for a silver lining - and others for a silver dollar.