06/06/2001 11:00PM

A ratings-worthy story line after all

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Blame it on Bob. When the ratings tumble, when the game goes south, when America turns its back on racing and runs home to Nascar, Baffert takes the rap. After all, he trains Point Given, and Point Given blew the Derby.

That was pretty much the message after the Preakness. Every microphone shoved Baffert's way came with an accusation attached. Explain the Derby. Apologize for the Derby. Get on your knees and beg forgiveness for the Derby. How could you let us down?

"They're still mad at me," Baffert said Thursday afternoon as he cruised Madison Avenue, sitting on ready for Saturday's Belmont.

"They" is mostly NBC, who dumped so many eggs in the Point Given basket that your cholesterol jumped just watching the promos. He was anointed the next Big Red, the horse who could haul the sport from the ashes and justify network investment. Then . . . heartbreak at Rockefeller Plaza. Not only did Point Given fail miserably in the Derby, he had the poor taste to ruin a consolation Triple Crown by stomping all over Monarchos in the Preakness.

Hopefully, the truth has dawned at the network level. Horse racing is an unpredictable bloodsport first, showbiz second. It is the ultimate in reality programming. You want neatly wrapped stories with happy, highly rated endings? Go pay $5,000 for a ticket to "The Producers." When the flag drops in a horse race, the script flies out the window.

Funny thing is, NBC might have stumbled into an even better ending.

An overpowering Belmont victory by Point Given could propel the show-boating colt headlong toward a season of true greatness. By the end of the year, his flop in the Derby could be no more than the answer to a bar bet.

"Which race did Point Given lose? Oh, yeah, that nutty circus in Kentucky."

Nine horses have lost the Derby, then won the Preakness and the Belmont. The most recent was Tabasco Cat in 1994. Of the nine, five were Derby favorites - Bimelech (1940), Native Dancer (1953), Nashua (1955), Damascus (1967), and Hansel (1991). Presumably, there were the same hard feelings lavished upon them after their betrayal in Louisville.

Native Dancer had won all 11 of his races and was odds-on to make the Derby number 12. Then he was mauled on the first turn at Churchill Downs and spent the rest of the race playing catch-up to a long-gone Dark Star. Native Dancer lost by a head, but never lost again.

Nashua had won 10 of 12 races before the Derby, but he also had the misfortune of being foaled the same year as Swaps. Eddie Arcaro thought he could let Swaps and Bill Shoemaker have their way through the opening quarter. He was wrong, but Nashua ended up Horse of the Year anyway.

Then there was Damascus. Like Point Given, he was practically conceded the Derby and the Triple Crown. When he finished a dull third at Churchill Downs with no apparent excuse, the second-guessers had a field day. Even Frank Whiteley, usually as sure of himself as Grant at Vicksburg, was driven to public self doubt.

"He was more rank and washy than I'd ever seen him before a race," Whiteley told Whitney Tower in Sports Illustrated. "His loss was no fault of Bill Shoemaker's. So the fault was either the horse's or mine - probably mine."

Damascus had a right to be nervous. Racial strife was boiling in Louisville that spring. Earlier Derby week, five demonstrators ran onto the Churchill Downs track during a race. Martin Luther King Jr. came to town and pleaded for peace. On the Derby day, 2,500 National Guard troops lined the racecourse.

Today, at the age of 86, Whiteley looks back at the 1967 Triple Crown with the same cool eye that took him to the Hall of Fame with horses like Tom Rolfe, Forego, and Ruffian. He made only one adjustment for the Preakness - giving Damascus a pony named Duffy to keep him company in the post parade.

"He really didn't need the damn pony," Whiteley said from his home in South Carolina. "He needed that pony like I needed a hole in the head.

"I called Shoemaker on the Sunday morning after he got beat in the Derby. I thought he'd throw up his hands on me. He said, 'Frank, I'll not only ride him in the Preakness for you - you get him over there quiet, I'll ride him and win it.' "

And that was that. A mellow Damascus won the Preakness with the same authority displayed by Point Given at Pimlico three weeks ago.

Damascus did the same thing in the Belmont, then tore through the rest of the '67 season, winning the Travers by 22 lengths and the Woodward by 10 lengths.

Point Given could end up in the same league as Damascus. He's got the right stuff - speed, stamina, durability, class, and just enough personality to draw a crowd. Thunder Blitz will give him a good race on Saturday, but the final furlong should belong to Point Given. Baffert can close his eyes and picture his colt doing to the Belmont what he did to the Preakness.

"Of course," Baffert added, "I also pictured him doing it in the Derby."