2001 Triple Crown

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To the Point

Point Given should take highly competitive Belmont

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Posted: Friday June 08, 2001 1:13 PM

ELMONT, N.Y. -- Although Saturday's Belmont Stakes is being billed as the rubber match between Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos and Preakness champion Point Given, the 1 1/2-mile "Test of Champions" will hardly be a two-horse contest. Indeed, the 133rd Belmont's nine-horse field may just be the deepest of any of this year's Triple Crown races.

In addition to the Derby and Preakness winners, five horses who will go to the gate Saturday also started in the Kentucky Derby on May 5. Thunder Blitz, who finished an impressive fourth at Churchill Downs, skipped the trip to Baltimore and has been working sharply during his five-week layoff. Balto Star (14th in Louisville) and Invisible Ink (2nd), both trained by Todd Pletcher, have also been resting on the Belmont backside. A P Valentine, last year's juvenile sensation, followed up a tough seventh-place trip in the Derby with a strong second-place showing at Pimlico. And finally, hard-luck horse Dollar Bill is back for one more try. The clumsy colt's rough ride in Kentucky shuffled him back to 15th place, but he overcame similar adversities in the Preakness to finish a fast-closing fourth and prove that he belonged among the elite of this year's talented three-year-old class.

Rounding out the field are European import Dr. Greenfield, who has won three of four starts, and Buckle Down Ben, a longshot trained by D. Wayne Lukas. Earlier this spring, Lukas missed the Derby for the first time since 1980. Still, he can't be counted out. He has won the Belmont four times, including last year, with the lightly regarded Commendable.

One thing this race lacks is any serious early speed. It is almost a certainty that the front-running Balto Star will grab the lead immediately and try to set an honest pace. Pletcher has said that he would like to see the colt go the first half-mile in about 48 seconds. If nobody goes with him, Balto Star could win the race from the front by reserving enough energy to withstand any late rushes from closers like Monarchos, Thunder Blitz, Invisible Ink and Dollar Bill.

That's why it's very likely that both Point Given and A P Valentine, as well as every other horse for that matter, will try to stay within a few lengths of Balto Star for most of the race. If that happens, Point Given is the clear choice to win. He is seasoned and, according to his trainer, Bob Baffert, still strong. Point Given ran down a moderate pace in the Preakness with ease and cruised under the wire, holding off a late challenge from A P Valentine while taking time to gaze at the railbirds in the Pimlico grandstand. Point Given's margin of victory would have been even greater had his rider, Gary Stevens, really asked him to stick to business and run. If only Stevens had reigned him in off of that suicidal pace at Churchill Downs, the big chestnut might be gunning for a Triple Crown Saturday.

My predicted order of finish:

1. Point Given
2. A P Valentine
3. Monarchos

Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Mark Beech covers horse racing for the magazine.

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