Moments before last Saturday's $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, the richest and grandest of the California prep races leading to the Kentucky Derby, trainer Bob Baffert had just finished saddling his odds-on favorite in the race, a mammoth chestnut named Point Given, when he whispered a last request into jockey Gary Stevens's ear. It was four weeks to the day before the Run for the Roses, an event for which Point Given had been the favorite all winter, and Santa Anita would be the colt's final test in Baffert's effort to get him into battle trim.
"This horse is fit and ready to run, Gary," Baffert told the colt's Hall of Fame rider. "Just bring him back tired so I don't have to train him too hard the next four weeks."
Stevens had ridden hundreds of Baffert's horses—from 1997 Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm to two of Baffert's four Santa Anita Derby winners—and more often than not he had ridden Baffert's horses to the letter. Not on Saturday, though, when his smooth-striding mount turned in one of the most spectacular Triple Crown prep races in years. "Sorry, Bob," a grinning Stevens told Baffert afterward. "He didn't get tired at all."
Indeed, though the colt had won the 1?-mile Derby by 5� widening lengths, in the mud, in 1:47[3/5]—only three fifths of a second off the stakes record—and though Stevens had hand-ridden him out past the wire through an extra furlong, sending him the Kentucky Derby distance of a mile and a quarter in all, the son of 1995 Derby winner Thunder Gulch did not draw so much as a long breath as Stevens steered him back to the winner's circle. Nevertheless, Baffert was ecstatic as he wended his way from the box seats to the track. Twice the winner of the Kentucky Derby, with Real Quiet following the year after Silver Charm, the man could feel the strong, steady pulse of yet another charge toward Churchill Downs. "Ain't he awesome?" Baffert said. "This is a hell of a horse!"
Not that this came as a startling discovery to Baffert. He had been touting the colt since he started training him last year as an unraced 2-year-old. The man who bred and owned him, Saudi Arabia's Prince Ahmed Bin Salman, had shipped him to Baffert in California, and the trainer sent him out to break his maiden in his second start, last Aug. 26 at Del Mar. Three weeks later, at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky, Point Given won his first stakes race, the Kentucky Cup Juvenile, by 3� lengths, and a month later he finished second, under Kent Desormeaux, in the rich Champagne Stakes at Belmont, when A.P. Valentine beat him by 1� lengths. "He should have won that," Baffert says. " Kent [moved] too early with him."
For the Nov. 4 Breeders' Cup Juvenile; at Churchill Downs, Baffert put Stevens on Point Given, but the jockey took him so far back, more than 10 lengths behind, that he looked to have no shot. After racing 10 wide on the last turn, however, the colt closed ground furiously through the lane and barely failed to get up, losing by a nose to Macho Uno. Point Given thus lost the 2-year-old championship to the Macho man, who has since been sidelined with an injury.
Point Given quietly stamped himself as the early Kentucky Derby favorite six weeks later, though, when he took the Hollywood Futurity by a length, with Stevens up. What's more, Baffert weighed him at the time, and the colt came in at a whopping 1,286 pounds. (Secretariat, also a large animal, weighed 1,156 pounds at about the same age.) "He's an eating machine," Baffert says. "I kept him on a diet all winter." In his only 2001 start before Santa Anita, after losing some 26 pounds, Point Given pulverized seven others in the March 17 San Felipe Stakes, racing five wide but winning as he pleased by 2� lengths.
That set him up for last Saturday. All Baffert wanted was a solid effort, a hard but not enervating performance in his final start before setting out for Louisville. "If he gets a good trip, I don't think he can lose," Baffert said two days before the race.
As confident as he was, not even Baffert had envisioned so stunning a tour of the oval. Of the five horses facing Point Given, only Crafty C.T., the four-length winner of the March 3 San Rafael Stakes, was given a solid chance to beat him. In fact, when Crafty C.T. turned into the backstretch 2� lengths in front, the upstart looked as if he'd be tough to beat. All at once, however, Point Given began to lengthen stride and cut into Crafty's lead. Moving to the half-mile pole, Point Given swept to the front on his own—"He was dragging me along," says Stevens—and opened a length on the turn. Crafty C.T. fought to stay in touch, but the Point simply yawned and pulled away. Howard Zucker, the trainer of Crafty C.T, had seen enough. "If this horse doesn't win the Triple Crown, something's wrong," Zucker said.
There are still some major prep races to be run. On Saturday, Keeneland hosts the Blue Grass Stakes in Lexington, Ky., where three gifted 3-year-olds—Hero's Tribute, Millennium Wind and A.P. Valentine—will meet. Meanwhile, Aqueduct offers the Wood Memorial, in which the Florida Derby winner, Monarchos, will battle yet another Baffert-trained climber, the brilliant if untested Congaree. A son of Arazi, the 2-year-old whirlwind of '91 who failed to fulfill his promise in the Derby, Congaree is being cast as an agent for his sire's long-delayed redemption at Churchill Downs.