Saturday, May 05, 2001

Derby winner is a 'Given'

Triple Crown buzz brewing over big colt

By Neil Schmidt
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Prince Ahmed bin Salman al Sauud of Saudi Arabia kisses his horse, Point Given, at Churchill Downs.
(Gary Landers photo)
| ZOOM |
        LOUISVILLE — There's a reason Visa can offer a $5 million bonus each year to the Triple Crown winner. It hasn't had to ante up. No one has won the Triple Crown since 1978. The sport's Holy Grail will get extra scrutiny this spring should Point Given triumph today at Churchill Downs. The 9-5 favorite in the Kentucky Derby (6:07 p.m.), he's being touted as the next superhorse.

        After Point Given rolled to victory three weeks ago in the Santa Anita Derby, rival trainer Howard Zucker said: “Bet your Triple Crown money now. If Point Given doesn't win it, there's something wrong.”

        Numerous horsemen have chimed in, noting this horse's rare blend of speed and power. But the Triple Crown drought suggests the trail is tricky enough to de rail any star.

        “I don't think (the drought) is coincidence. I think winning the Triple Crown is very, very tough to do,” Mike Battaglia said.

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        Battaglia, the handicapper from Edgewood, Ky., has done the morning line for the Derby 26 consecutive years. He says the Triple Crown series is tough for the versatility it requires: beating a huge field here at 1 1/4 miles; negotiating the tight turns at the Preakness (1 miles); then lasting 1 1/2 miles at the Belmont.

        And doing it all in 36 days.

        “You've got to be special,” Battaglia said.

        There are only 11 Triple Crown winners. Forty-four others won two legs of the Crown.

        In the drought, 11 horses have won two legs — seven winning the first two. Sunday Silence (1989), Silver Charm ('97) and Real Quiet ('98)

        came closest, each finishing second in the Belmont.

        “The only time you can think about it is after the Preakness, if you win (the first two legs),” said Point Given trainer Bob Baffert, who trained Silver Charm and Real Quiet. “Then you've got to worry about your horse. By that time, he's starting to show signs that he's tired.”

        Baffert thinks Silver Charm would have won the Crown if he hadn't faced a fresh Touch Gold in the Belmont. Touch Gold, who skipped the first two legs, won by three-fourths of a length.

        But Baffert is more haunted by Real Quiet's loss. That horse led in the stretch, but was nipped by a nose by Victory Gallop.

        “Real Quiet should have won it,” Baffert said.

        This lengthy dry spell isn't unusual. After Citation in 1948, there wasn't a Triple Crown winner until 1973, when Secretariat headlined the sport's golden decade.

        Seattle Slew ('77) and Affirmed ('78) also won the Crown in short order. Riva Ridge ('72) and Spectacular Bid ('79) might have, if not for adversity: The former struggled on a sloppy track at the Preakness; the latter stepped on a safety pin the morning before the Belmont.

        “We got spoiled in the '70s,” Battaglia said. “People don't realize how great those three (Triple Crown) horses were. Secretariat's the best horse that ever raced, in my opinion, and the other two would be in the top 10 all-time.”

        Point Given's chief obstacle appears to be stablemate Congaree, the 5-1 second choice. He is making rapid improvement, though he has had only four career races.

        And the largest field he has seen before is seven. Congaree would be the first horse to win the Derby in his fifth start since Exterminator in 1918. Only one horse since 1967 (Fusaichi Pegasus, last year) won the Derby without winning a race at 2.

        Losing to Congaree in the Wood Memorial diminished excitement for Monarchos, a 6-1 choice. But Monarchos' thundering move in winning the Florida Derby remains the most impressive surge of this spring.

        Other story lines to watch today:

        • Laffit Pincay Jr., 54, the winningest jockey in racing history, will try for just his second Derby win; he rode Swale to victory in 1984. Blue Grass Stakes winner Millennium Wind, a 6-1 choice, is his first Derby mount in seven years.

        • Former Kentucky basketball coach Rick Pitino and former Duke player Bobby Hurley will have a battle of horseflesh. Hurley, who helped lead the Blue Devils over Pitino's Wildcats in the 1992 NCAA Tournament, owns 20-1 shot Songandaprayer. Pitino is part-owner of 15-1 pick A P Valentine.

        • Balto Star, winner of the Turfway Spiral Stakes, will try to become just the second horse in the Spiral's 30-year history to win the Derby. The first was Lil E. Tee in 1992.


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