They both felt, in their separate ways, a powerful sense of vindication at the end of last Saturday's Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. In fact, for jockey Gary Stevens and trainer Bob Baffert, there was also a curiously mixed but equally strong set of emotions that stretched from the euphoria of their triumphant moment in Baltimore to the keen disappointment of having failed in the Kentucky Derby two weeks earlier.
Their gawky, goofy equine adolescent known as Point Given, a soundly beaten favorite on May 5 at Churchill Downs—where he finished a lifeless fifth, 11� lengths behind the stretch-running winner, Monarchos—had just earned a nearly effortless win over A P Valentine. The 2�-length victory proved that Stevens's and Baffert's faith in his ability as a racehorse was not misplaced and gave credence to their oft-expressed judgment that he is a very special beast indeed.
There was Stevens, only minutes after the race, riding the towering chestnut outside the winner's circle, gleefully chiding one writer for having picked the colt in the Derby but then abandoning him in the Preakness, while he alternately gulped water from a bottle and sprinkled the colt. "The real Point Given showed up today!" crowed Stevens. "Look at his nostrils. He's not even blowin'! This was just a gallop for him."
Standing on the turf course in the shadow of the giant thoroughbred known affectionately around his barn as T Rex, Baffert was relishing this moment. He was near tears as he called his 78-year-old mother, Elinora. Plagued by kidney and heart ailments, she had not been able to make the trip from the family ranch in Nogales, Ariz., to Baltimore. Baffert had guaranteed his mother a Kentucky Derby victory—"I let her down," he said on Saturday—but instead he delivered the Preakness with a horse who had rubbernecked at the crowds through the stretch after ducking in and nearly knocking Congaree, his stablemate, into the fence at the top of the lane. "I wish you were here," Baffert told Elinora above the din. "Oh, this horse! He's a pain, but he's worth the trouble."
Well worth it. Throughout the winter, from that Dec. 16 afternoon when he dusted Millennium Wind in the Hollywood Futurity, Point Given had given signals that he was the best colt of his talent-rich generation. He confirmed this on St. Patrick's Day at Santa Anita, where he crushed seven others in the San Felipe Stakes, and carved it in the stone of the San Gabriel Mountains when he embarrassed five foes in the April 7 Santa Anita Derby, winning by nearly six lengths and looking like the most dominant 3-year-old since the Easy Goer-Sunday Silence tandem of 1989.
However, as soon as Point Given was whipped in the Kentucky Derby, he became a puzzling afterthought to many journalists and an enigma to handicappers. "He is the forgotten horse," Baffert said before the Preakness. He joked about the press's abandonment of the horse, but it clearly nettled him. "Isn't it amazing the way the media leave you?" Baffert asked shortly before the race. "Like rats on a sinking ship."
Even A P Valentine, who had not won a stakes race since Oct. 14, had a more vociferous, albeit smaller, gang of followers. Congaree, who had run brilliantly in finishing third in the Kentucky Derby—he was the only horse to get caught up in that record-breaking pace and survive—suddenly appeared to be the more dangerous of Baffert's two horses, particularly after the trainer replaced Congaree's Derby jockey, Victor Espinoza, with Jerry Bailey.
The reason for Point Given's lackluster effort in Kentucky became a centerpiece of debate among those seeking to divine the outcome of the Preakness. "The pace was the key to that race," Baffert said last Thursday. Seeking to get a spot within striking distance of the pacesetters from the 17th post position, Stevens had rushed Point Given out of the gate and found himself far too close to the leaders as they clocked those torrid early splits, leaving the colt empty on the last turn. Baffert also was criticized for training the horse too hard at Churchill Downs—his five-furlong drill in 58[1/5] seconds five days before the Derby was an eyepopper—and rumors surfaced last week that the colt was lame. Baffert eased up on his workouts for the Preakness. "I slowed him down," he said a few days after the colt had worked five eighths in :59[4/5]. "I didn't want to take too much out of him." Still, when the colt ended up in post position 11 at Pimlico, more seers despaired of his chances.
Racing fans, though, had not given up on him, and by post time he was a slight favorite over Monarchos; both went off at $2.30 to $1, with about $4,000 more bet on T Rex in the win pool. Stevens broke the Point cleanly but did not rush him early, allowing him to settle near the back in the run to the first turn. He hadn't gone 500 yards when he sensed that the old Point Given, relaxed and into the bridle, was back. "Going into the first turn, it was the same feeling I had in the Santa Anita Derby," Stevens said. "The race was over."
All he had to do was keep him in the clear. In a stretch of 880 yards, from midway into the first turn through midway into the last, Point Given threw down a blistering half mile in about 46 seconds, swallowing one horse after another as he raced seven wide on the backstretch. The momentum earned him to the throat of the leader, Congaree, on the final turn. "He did it with no effort at all," Stevens said. "We got the trip we were hoping to get in the Kentucky Derby."