Preakness S. (gr. I)

(gr. I , 9.5f ,)

POINT GIVEN (CH h, 126 lb) $650,000
Thunder Gulch —Turko's Turn , by Turkoman
B—The Thoroughbred Corp., KY.; O—The Thoroughbred Corporation; T—Bob Baffert

A P Valentine (B h, 126 lb) $200,000
A.P. Indy —Twenty Eight Carat , by Alydar
B—W. S. Kilroy, KY.; O—Ol Memorial Stable and Tabor, Michael; T—Nicholas P. Zito

Congaree (CH h, 126 lb) $100,000
Arazi —Mari's Sheba , by Mari's Book
B—Stonerside Stable, KY.; O—Stonerside Stable; T—Bob Baffert

Margins: 2¼, neck, 1¼. Others: Dollar Bill 126($50,000) , Griffinite 126 , Monarchos 126 , Marciano 126 , Bay Eagle 126 , Percy Hope 126 , Richly Blended 126 , Mr. John 126 . Winning Jockey, Gary L. Stevens.

Two days before the May 5 Kentucky Derby (gr. I), Bob Baffert marched into Barn 45 at Churchill Downs, his family in tow, and sought out Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, owner of Express Tour. “Hey man, you’re breathing my air when you come here,” he said. The good-natured quip was in response to a similar comment the sheikh had made to Baffert in Dubai this past March.

This indeed was Baffert’s air, which swirled around his two chestnut powerhouses, Point Given and Congaree. Ironically, Sheikh Mohammed had just finished talking to the media about the tragic and untimely death of his pride and joy, Dubai Millennium. With tears welling in his eyes, he used an old Arab proverb to describe his feelings for the colt: “The air of heaven blew between his ears.”

When it comes to the Triple Crown in America, many believe the air of heaven blows between Bob Baffert’s ears. Since 1996, Baffert had won two Kentucky Derbys and two Preaknesses, and was narrowly beaten in two Belmont Stakes and another Kentucky Derby. Although Baffert’s heavenly air went still on a hot May afternoon in Louisville, when Congaree and Point Given managed to come away with only third- and fifth-place finishes, respectively, it blew into Baltimore May 19 like a nor’easter off Chesapeake Bay.

Before a record crowd of 104,454, Point Given meandered his way down the Pimlico stretch to win the 126th Preakness Stakes (gr. I) by 21¼4 lengths, with Congaree just getting nailed for second in the final jumps by A P Valentine.

This latest Baffert blast was so powerful it was felt halfway around the world in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where another true lover of the Thoroughbred, Prince Ahmed Salman, owner of Point Given, could barely contain his emotions. Salman, whose lifelong ambition is to win the Kentucky Derby, was crushed by Point Given’s defeat in Louisville and the way the race unfolded. Baffert and jockey Gary Stevens felt in some way they had let the prince down. Their only regret following the Preakness was he was not there to share in one of his greatest moments.

But the winds Point Given had stirred in Baltimore had also blown through the deserts of Saudi Arabia with the force of a sirocco. Salman was overcome with joy following the race, and he tried to convey his feelings on the phone to manager Dick Mulhall, who relayed his words as he spoke. “He said he’s the happiest man on the planet Earth today,” Mulhall said. “He has tears in his eyes...and he loves America.”

Mulhall, with a wide grin on his face, told the prince, “Congratulations. He ran a helluva race, didn’t he? Or should I have said a heckuva race? Either way, he ran great, and you deserve it. I’m sorry we missed the Derby, but we’ll get the next one, too.” Mulhall, of course, was referring to the Belmont Stakes (gr. I) on June 9.

Salman, who has built The Thoroughbred Corp. into one of racing’s most powerful international operations, felt Point Given was too close to a suicidal pace in the Derby. He was adamant the colt be taken back near the rear of the pack in the Preakness, as in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I). Baffert, Stevens, and Mulhall fully supported the prince’s edict, and they sat back over the next two weeks and waited for the heavenly breezes to begin building up force once again, as they had in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) and Santa Anita Derby (gr. I).

After the Preakness, Salman, feeling gratified about the victory and his tactics, told Mulhall, “I’m going to change my title from the prince to the general.”

While Salman was in Saudi Arabia tending to his many businesses, Baffert had to deal with restoring Point Given’s reputation that at one time had reporters and fellow trainers predicting a Triple Crown sweep. The 17-hand son of Thunder Gulch was such an imposing presence he inspired quotes such as the one from trainer Jim Cassidy, trainer of Jamaican Rum, who commented on his first encounter with Point Given in the San Felipe: “When I looked at him, I thought the race was for 3-year-olds and up, and he was the up.” Dave Hofmans, trainer of Millennium Wind, said of his horse, “I’ve never seen him afraid of anything...except Point Given. God forbid he runs into you.”

Not only did Baffert have to contend with the training of Point Given and Congaree, he also had to answer for Point Given’s well-publicized Lipizzaner stallion impersonations, in which he’d rear several times in succession without warning, nearly flipping over or getting loose. And then there were the rumors and written reports of the colt being “dead lame.” By the time he arrived in Baltimore from Louisville three days before the Preakness, his “unofficial” medical reports had him with every pastern injury known to veterinary science. One expected to see him hobble off the van, with his legs wrapped in bandages. One trainer said he wouldn’t make it to the half-mile pole.

But what came off the van was the same tall, stately chestnut, packing his Derby weight, his coat glistening in the sun. And not a hobble to his walk. Right behind was Congaree, bouncing along like a frisky 2-year-old. Also on the flight from Louisville was Dollar Bill, who should have been equipped with a rabbit’s foot and a lucky horseshoe after all the hard luck he’d encountered in his three previous races.

Awaiting them in the refurbished Pimlico stakes barn was the mighty Monarchos, brilliant winner of the Derby, and last year’s Champagne (gr. I) winner A P Valentine, who had taken some strange side trips in his journey to the Triple Crown this year, the result of bucked shins suffered in the Breeders’ Cup. Trainer Nick Zito brought A P Valentine to Baltimore on a road that, as he put it, “wasn’t pretty.” But Zito believed it was now time for God and racing luck to make things right again after A P Valentine passed seven horses in the final eighth of the Derby, despite being stopped cold twice in the race.

“The Derby was so frustrating; the next day I cried, honestly,” Zito said. “What a business having to defend yourself and your horse all the time, knowing neither of you are guilty.” A super work on the Monday before the Preakness by the son of A.P. Indy raised Zito’s spirits.

The stage was set. All the players were now ready for their battle in Baltimore. But there were more questions than opinions. Could Monarchos duplicate his explosive victory in the Derby, in which he became the only horse other than Secretariat to break the two-minute mark for the mile and a quarter? Could the lightly raced Congaree maintain his form after pressing the fastest pace in Derby history, then opening up a clear lead in the stretch?

Could Point Given, who had been sent to Rood and Riddle veterinary clinic for a post-Derby check-up, rebound off his disappointing performance? Was he victimized by being too close to the pace? Was post 11 going to hurt him? Was he trained too fast for the Derby? Was he not trained enough? Was he sound? Was he even as good as people made him out to be? In his own camp, there were none of those questions. He still was Point Given: Superhorse.

The morning before the Preakness, Point Given went out for a routine gallop. The day before, his first morning back to the track after a work on May 14, was the day the alarm light was on in the Baffert camp. Equipped with a special lip cord, Point Given was a perfect gentleman, other than giving a half-hearted attempt to rear on the horse path. That was stopped in its tracks by a crack of the whip over his shoulder by exercise rider Pepe Aragon. On the morning of May 18, however, Point Given was not wearing his lip cord. A few strides out of the barn, walking on the wood chip path, he put his foot down awkwardly, turning his ankle, which really set off the fireworks. The colt reared six or seven times. Aragon once again found himself staring at the sky, holding on to anything he could grab—reins, bridle, neck.

When someone later commented that Point Given had “gone insane again,” Mulhall, standing nearby, could only laugh. “I’m getting used to all that,” he said. “He’s just playing. He’s like a big kid. He knows exactly what he’s doing when he rears. He knows just how far he can go up.”

When asked how many times Point Given has reared, Aragon said, “He averages about every other day, sometimes three, four, or five times. You just deal with it. I don’t even think about it. If I did, then I’d be afraid of him, and he’d sense that fear. He’s really a nice, calm horse in his stall. He likes to come over and play with you.”

As a yearling, Point Given was no different than any of the other horses, said Alice Chandler, who raised the son of Thunder Gulch at her Mill Ridge Farm near Lexington. “He was an average horse, slightly larger than the others,” she said. “Then, all of a sudden, he started to grow...and grow. By the time he left us, he was absolutely huge. He was clean and correct, and we never even had to put a bandage on him. He had a lot of personality, and never tried to get loose. He was never any trouble until the day he left and he refused to get on the van. It was some doing trying to shove this big hunk of a horse onto the van.”

After Point Given was broken and sent to Baffert, Mulhall sold the dam, Turko’s Turn, for $160,000. A few days later, Baffert entered Point Given in a maiden race and told Mulhall, “You know, I think this colt can really run.” A stunned Mulhall replied, “Huh? I just sold the mare. Now I gotta go see if I can get her back.” Mulhall contacted the new owner and bought her back for $400,000.

Mulhall also laughed at the rumors that Point Given was dead lame. “Dead lame? He’s never been lame in his life,” he said. “Believe me, if there was anything wrong with him, we would have taken him home. He’s absolutely no different than he was last year. He has one cracked heel, and when you have that, it’s the skin that hurts, not bone. There have been a few days when he’s walked out of his stall on his hind foot and kind of pointed it for about five steps. Then he’s fine again. It’s nothing, and it’s not new.”

“After the Derby, we checked him out at Rood and Riddle and everything was fine,” Baffert said. “He has had a problem with a hind pastern, where he gets the cracked heels, but it’s basically just cosmetic.”

Overnight rains on Preakness Eve gave way to hazy skies and high humidity. A wide variety of emotions ran through the stakes barn. All was quiet with the Derby winner, as Monarchos played with his new stuffed animal—a horse which, of course, was gray. Trainer John Ward said Mouse, the lead pony, would appreciate his upcoming days off after being manhandled by Monarchos every morning.

At the opposite end of the barn, Point Given poked his head out of the stall throughout the morning, gawking at all the activity. A laid-back Congaree showed off his other end, and could only muster a yawn as his mane was being braided. Joanne McNamara, exercise rider of Dollar Bill, was getting good vibes, and believed the black cloud that had been hanging over the colt was about to lift. “I really have a good feeling,” she said. “He’s just been so happy here, and he ran Dallas (trainer Stewart) out of his stall this morning. And he never does that to Dallas.”

Jennifer Leigh-Pedersen, recruited off the farm by owner Ernie Paragallo to train Griffinite and his other horses, said she was going back to the hotel to meditate and pray. “He won’t disappoint me today; he just won’t,” she said. “He will give 100%. I know he will.” She then planted a big kiss on the colt’s cheek. “He knows I love him to death,” she said.

Despite all the rumors and questions, Point Given still was made the co-favorite with Monarchos at 2-1, although there were a few more dollars wagered on Point Given in the win pool. Baffert was hoping Congaree, with new rider Jerry Bailey, would be able to settle in behind horses and not be shown daylight for as long as possible. But when Congaree bobbled at the start and ducked toward the inside, it got his blood up, and he took off after pace-setting Richly Blended. Point Given, as per Salman’s instructions, was taken hold of by Stevens, who dropped him in behind the field. Monarchos, who seemed to be struggling with the track from the outset, fell back to last as they went into the first turn after a quarter in :23.84.

Down the backstretch, Richly Blended opened up by about three lengths, with Congaree, racing without cover, in second, and pulling Bailey. Victor Espinoza, who landed the mount on A P Valentine after being taken off Congaree, had his colt in good position in sixth. Passing the five-eighths pole, Stevens put Point Given in gear, and he began picking off horses from the far outside. A P Valentine was in tight quarters and had to duck to the inside to avoid Percy Hope, just as Point Given was charging up alongside him. Dollar Bill was in good striking position for a change, but that wouldn’t last long. Nearing the half-mile pole, Shaun Bridgmohan, on Griffinite, flipped his goggles, and the colt suddenly ducked out right into poor old Dollar Bill, whose collision rates are skyrocketing with each race. Just like that, Dollar Bill was last. A snake-bit Pat Day could only steer him to the outside and circle the field. A P Valentine, meanwhile, was also having traffic problems and lost some momentum at a crucial time.

As they approached the quarter pole after a half in :47.32 and three-quarters in 1:11.86, Point Given and Congaree ranged up alongside Richly Blended, who was about to call it a day. The Baffert Boys headed for home eyeball-to-eyeball. Stevens and Bailey looked at each other and smiled, then looked back for any signs of Monarchos, who was struggling back in the pack. Point Given then went into his drunken sailor routine, as his big rear end rammed against Congaree. With his head cocked and running on his left lead, he was all over the place as Stevens kept tossing the reins around, trying to straighten him out. Still, he began to draw off, despite trying to gawk at the infield. Stevens gave him a little flick of the whip with his left hand to prevent him from ducking in. Point Given kept increasing his lead, finally changing his leads inside the sixteenth pole.

A P Valentine had split horses and was closing in on Congaree, with Dollar Bill flying on the far outside after going nine-wide turning for home. Point Given was now in full gear, and threw his ears up as he crossed the wire. A P Valentine just got up to beat out Congaree by a neck. It was another 11¼4 lengths to Dollar Bill, followed by Griffinite and Monarchos, who never did get a hold of the track. The final time over the dull track was 1:55.51.

“Let’s go get the silver,” Baffert said, as Point Given returned at a full gallop on the grass course. “Hey, Bob,” Stevens called. “He loves the turf.” While waiting for the cue from NBC to lead the horse into the winner’s circle, Baffert called his mother, Ellie, in Nogales, Ariz. “Wish you were here, Momma,” he said. “I’ll talk to you later. We’re gonna go to the winner’s circle right now.” Baffert then grabbed the reins to lead the colt in, but quickly dropped them. “You know what?” he said. “I’m not leading in that wild s.o.b.”

Even in all the revelry, Baffert couldn’t help recognize another extraordinary performance by Congaree. “He ran his heart out,” he said. “He tried so hard. But Jerry just couldn’t get him back off that pace. It just goes to show you how good this horse is.”

The following morning, as a salmon-pink sunrise emerged over Old Hilltop, the sound of horse vans roared behind the stakes barn, as horses began moving out. Zito was the first to leave, heading for Belmont Park. Dollar Bill walked the shed and stopped in front of Baffert’s stalls after eyeing the blanket of black-eyed Susans draped over the railing. As if to finally make a statement and get a piece of the glory he’s been denied, he reached over and snatched a flower, then walked off, the yellow and black petals protruding from his mouth. Griffinite, emerging as a new star in the making, sported a gash on his left hind leg, the result of being stepped on during the race. The beaming smile on Leigh-Pedersen’s face spoke volumes of the pride she had in her horse and the magical experience she had just been part of.

Finally, there was Point Given and Congaree in the exact same positions they had been the previous morning, with the winner’s head out the door, checking out everything around him, much as he had done down the stretch of the Preakness.

Now comes the Belmont, and a much-anticipated rematch between Point Given and Monarchos. Congaree likely will not show up following three gut-wrenching races. But there will be heavy support for A P Valentine and Dollar Bill. Awaiting them all will be Kentucky Derby runner-up Invisible Ink and Derby fourth-place finisher Thunder Blitz, along with Arkansas Derby (gr. II) and Turfway Spiral (gr. II) winner Balto Star, Team Valor’s English import Dr Greenfield, and possibly Godolphin’s E Dubai, a 121¼2-length winner of a Belmont allowance race May 11.

Despite the victory, certain aspects of the Preakness were bittersweet to Baffert. He wishes Congaree could have held on for a one-two finish, and he now knows that Point Given could possibly have fulfilled Salman’s Kentucky Derby dream under different circumstances. He also would love to have shared the Preakness victory with the prince in person. “I really wish he could have been here,” Baffert said. “It would have been so great for him to be part of it.”

But, for Salman, it didn’t matter whether he was in Baltimore or Riyadh. He still could feel the air of heaven blowing through Point Given’s ears. b