This was a Belmont Stakes for history, the defining performance of a golden chestnut who etched his name onto the rolls of the race's most formidable champions. Down on the racetrack, astride the mighty Point Given, Gary Stevens crossed the wire, thrust his fist in the air and eased the colt into a canter. Up in the tumultuous clubhouse seats, Point Given's owner, Prince Ahmed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, turned and embraced his trainer, Bob Baffert, as if he were a lost son. "Thank you, Bob," the teary prince said. "I love you."
If there were any questions about the talent of Point Given, the giant son of Thunder Gulch—himself the winner of the 1995 Kentucky Derby and Belmont—the colt put them to rest last Saturday. In an extraordinary display of speed, stamina and power, Point Given won by 12� lengths over A P Valentine, with Derby winner Monarchos another three quarters of a length back. The margin of victory was the largest in the Belmont since Risen Star took the 1988 edition by 14�. "He put on a show today," said Stevens.
That he did. Point Given's time of 2:26[2/5] for the 1� miles tied Risen Star's clocking as the fourth fastest in the event's history. Yet among all the toasts and celebrations was a sense of destiny unfulfilled. Point Given's fifth-place finish in the Derby, in which the colt got cooked by a fiery pace, eliminated any chance he could become America's first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed, in 1978. The Point's 2�-length victory in the Preakness, in which Stevens allowed him to settle slowly out of the gate, deepened the disappointment of the opportunity lost in the Derby. The lament only heightened after the Belmont. "It's bittersweet," said Stevens. "He should have a Triple Crown after his name."
No one felt this more keenly than Baffert, who had not won the Belmont in four previous tries. In 1997 and '98 he saddled horses who entered the race with Derby and Preakness victories under their belts, only to get beaten in the Belmont. First, Silver Charm lost in the last few jumps to Touch Gold, and the next year Baffert watched in horror as jockey Kent Desormeaux moved Real Quiet too soon. Tiring in the stretch, the colt lost by a nose to Victory Gallop. Since Visa offers $5 million to any horse who wins the Triple Crown—and a trainer receives 10% of purses won—the losses stung Baffert to the quick. "We left another $5 million out there this year," he said. "That's $15 million!"
In the days leading up to the Belmont, Baffert could sense the likelihood of another dominating performance by the colt he had nicknamed T-Rex. Unlike Monarchos, who was beginning to show the effects of his rigorous winter-spring campaign, Point Given thrived on the work, and only accident or illness seemed capable of untracking him. On May 30, a day Baffert calls Black Wednesday—"the longest day of my Triple Crown life," he says—they nearly did.
That morning at Churchill Downs, when the colt's handlers took the mud poultice off his front legs, his shins were oozing a clear fluid. They bathed them with hot soapy water, applied medicinal cream and wrapped them in bandages. No sooner had that healing begun than the colt, a mischievous, 1,270-pound clown, hit his head in the stall and opened a gash over his left eye. A vet sewed him up with four stitches.
That afternoon Point Given began to show signs of colic—an intestinal disorder that causes constipation and, in its most severe form, is life-threatening—so he was given a mineral-oil enema to clear his congested digestive system. For four hours, from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m., Baffert sat on a chair in front of the colt's stall waiting for the colt to relieve himself. After he finally did, Baffert went to dinner, then returned to see how the horse was. He appeared fine and, in fact, gulped down a tub of hot mash.
Not wanting his horse to eat too much after the colic, Baffert took the hay out of his stall. "I was afraid he'd get gas and colicky in the middle of the night," he said. "I just gave him a little alfalfa."
Around 11:30 p.m., with the alfalfa eaten and the shed dark, the colt became hungry again. Baffert had accidentally spilled some of the alfalfa outside the stall, and T-Rex tried to reach it by stretching his neck under the plastic webbing that covers the door. Something must have spooked him. Lifting his head on that powerful crane of a neck, he tore the snaps off the webbing and charged out of the stall, banging into a wall and opening a four-inch cut on his right side. He started eating from the hay nets hanging outside the other horses' stalls. Loose in the shed, he could have killed himself. But the fuss he made awakened the grooms, who dashed in to find him standing at the end of the barn, his head in the air. "There was old T-Rex, yelling and screaming like hell," said Baffert. "He's like a big kid."
Ten days later, at Belmont Park, the colt marched from Baffert's barn, looking resplendent, his coat shimmering like molten gold in the late afternoon sun. As expected, Balto Star went to the lead under Chris McCarron, and down the backstretch Stevens nearly had a stranglehold on Point Given. "I couldn't take any more hold of him without cutting his wind off," said Stevens. "That's how hard he was pulling."