Give thanks to Baffert for making it horse race

May 18, 2001|By JOHN EISENBERG

WE DON'T KNOW which horse will get the win in the Preakness tomorrow at Pimlico, but even before the starting gate opens, we can credit Bob Baffert with the save.

Without Baffert's two horses, Point Given and Congaree, the field would consist of Monarchos, the Kentucky Derby winner, and eight others mostly sending up prayers. Monarchos would be, say, a 3-5 favorite.

He is still a relatively heavy favorite at 2-1 on Pimlico's morning line, but his odds could rise if the betting public prefers one or both of Baffert's horses - certainly a possibility given that Congaree finished third in the Derby and is adding jockey Jerry Bailey and Point Given was regarded as racing's next super horse, until finishing fifth in Louisville.

In other words, this year's second jewel of the Triple Crown is infinitely more interesting and competitive with Baffert's horses included, to the point that it's fair to suggest that Baffert has added virtually all of the drama and intrigue.

Give that man an appearance fee!

Oh, right, this isn't tennis or golf, where event promoters routinely pay extra, unannounced fees to stars to add luster to their events. (How would you pay off a horse under the table, by the way? Discreetly slip him peppermints?)

But hey, Baffert isn't here as a favor to anyone; like any trainer with an excellent chance of winning one of the country's biggest races, he doesn't need extra incentives to run.

Still, no one would have blamed Maryland Jockey Club CEO Joe De Francis for holding his breath until Baffert's plane landed in Maryland and Point Given and Congaree were officially entered in the Preakness. For whatever reason, the race was operating with a much smaller margin for error this year.

In the aftermath of a blazing Kentucky Derby, the horses that ran second, fourth and sixth were among the many pointed elsewhere. The runner-up, Invisible Ink, hadn't even stopped breathing hard when his trainer, Todd Pletcher, started talking about the Belmont. So much for bringing any new rivalries to Baltimore.

In the end, only five of the 17 Derby horses came, and without Baffert's pair, it's the horses that ran first, seventh (A P Valentine) and 15th (Dollar Bill) - not exactly the stuff of high drama. And none of the newcomers (Preakness entries who skipped the Derby) appears to be of the same caliber as Red Bullet, who skipped the Derby and won the Preakness a year ago.

In other words, without Baffert's horses in the field, there was no guarantee of stiff competition for Monarchos. And while Monarchos, winner of four of his past five starts, is a for-real talent, any horse angling for a Triple Crown should at least be challenged.

As Monarchos' trainer, John Ward Jr., said yesterday morning outside the stakes barn: "Our horse has proven himself, but we're still skeptics. We're like you [reporters]; we've got to see it again."

Enter Congaree and Point Given, thankfully.

Congaree, remember, whipped Monarchos in April in their final Derby prep, the Wood Memorial. And Point Given was so impressive leading up to the Derby, that more than a few observers deemed him unbeatable.

Thus do this year's best Preakness angles emerge. Is Point Given still a major talent who just had a bad day, or is he the latest victim of racing's desperate tendency to prematurely anoint stars? Will Bailey, probably the best jockey anywhere, give Congaree a smarter ride, moving him farther off the hot pace and leaving more in his tank for the stretch? Or is Monarchos just too talented?

"He's good, very good, no question," Baffert said about the Derby winner yesterday. "His race in Florida [winning the Florida Derby] was awesome. A lot of people got off him after the Wood, but he's a very tough horse. He's going to come running late, we know that. The thing is to somehow get a jump on him."

It might help if the early pace is slower, which it almost has to be; the first half-mile of the Derby was run in 44 4/5 seconds, the first mile in 1:09 1/5 - astonishing times more suited to a sprint. That set the stretch run up perfectly for a closer such as Monarchos.

Predictably, none of the Derby front-runners has come to Pimlico - hey, they're tired. But a newcomer, Richly Blended, could come close to matching the pace.

"Richly Blended is a fast horse," Baffert said. "The pace will be hot. But hopefully, it'll be in the range of 45 or 46 seconds [for the first half-mile]."

Baffert held court for reporters, watched his horses gallop and ducked into the Alibi breakfast yesterday on his first morning at Pimlico. He's endured his share of criticism over the years, some deserved, but, to his credit, he understands his role in racing's curious theater - he's the celebrity trainer, the big man with a sense of humor - and he steps right up and plays the part, sometimes just for the good of the game.

That's not why he's here this time. Let's understand that. He's here for the win.

But either way, win or lose, he gets the save.

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