Unquestionably one of the country's best 3-year-olds, Point Given has been an illusion, lurking in Santa Anita's morning shadows while others of his generation have been slugging it out in prep races for the Kentucky Derby.

Since his last race, in mid-December, the legions of future-book bettors have been able to assess Point Given only through a series of workouts under the supervision of his Derby-tested trainer, Bob Baffert.

Finally, it's time for the effusive Baffert to shut up and for Point Given to suit up. What is arguably the most eagerly awaited race of the year comes Saturday, when Baffert unveils Point Given--the 2001 model--in the $250,000 San Felipe Stakes. There will be a small field, but the San Felipe will be one of those early barometers vis-a-vis the 127th running of the Derby at Churchill Downs on May 5.

If Point Given survives a two-race, no-room-for-error program that's supposed to get him to Louisville, waiting there in the starting gate will be a collection of horses with three or more races as 3-year-olds. None, it can be presumed, will have waited until St. Patrick's Day to make its 3-year-old debut.

Baffert, who has won the Derby twice in the last four years after missing by a nose in 1996, is unfazed by the reminder that Point Given would be accomplishing a rare feat, winning the Derby off merely two late prep races.

"He had six races as a 2-year-old," Baffert said of the hulking colt. "That's a good-sized campaign. I'm getting him ready this year the way that's best for the horse, and I think I know what I need to do."

When trainers are asked to name the toughest race to win, many would single out the Derby. Yet, since 1972, an exceptionally large number of conditioners--eight--have been multiple winners of the race. It seems that once you've won the Derby, it's not that much of an oddity to repeat. This phenomenon started with Lucien Laurin, who had Riva Ridge in 1972 and Secretariat in 1973, and continued with Woody Stephens (Cannonade and Swale), LeRoy Jolley (Foolish Pleasure and Genuine Risk), Laz Barrera (Bold Forbes and Affirmed), Charlie Whittingham (Ferdinand and Sunday Silence), Nick Zito (Strike The Gold and Go For Gin) and Baffert (Silver Charm and Real Quiet).

The eighth, Wayne Lukas, needs to be isolated, because he has won the Derby four times, two short of Ben Jones' record. After Lukas' first win, with Winning Colors, in 1988, there was a six-year gap, but now he's won the brightest jewel in the Triple Crown with Thunder Gulch, Grindstone and Charismatic in the last six years.

The result of a mating between Thunder Gulch and Turko's Turn, a Turkoman mare, Point Given was bred by the Thoroughbred Corp., which is the stable name for Ahmed Salman, a 42-year-old Saudi Arabian prince who also spends freely at auctions to buy top horses.

He has finished an unlucky 13th with both of his Kentucky Derby starters, the most recent juvenile champion Anees' unsuccessful effort last year. Anees was trained by Alex Hassinger Jr., who left Salman's employ last summer. To say the least, Salman has moved around in the California training ranks--Lukas has trained two of his best distaffers, Sharp Cat and Spain--and when Point Given was among a small group of horses that went to Baffert early last year, the timing couldn't have been better for the silver-haired trainer. He had just lost all the horses he trained for Aaron Jones, another moneybags owner who spends freely at sales.

It took only two races at Del Mar last summer--a second followed by a maiden win on Aug. 26--before Baffert tossed Point Given into stakes company. At Turfway Park, about 100 miles up the road from Churchill Downs, the colt broke awkwardly and still won the Kentucky Cup Juvenile by 3 1/2 lengths.

A month later, Point Given was at Belmont Park for the Champagne, a race he lost by 1 3/4 lengths to A P Valentine, the Rick Pitino-owned, Nick Zito-trained colt.

Their rematch came Nov. 4, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. A P Valentine hurt his shins and was never a factor. Gary Stevens, who had won the Derby with Thunder Gulch, was aboard Point Given for the first time and faced with the worst post position--the inside--in the 14-horse field. After Stevens throttled his mount leaving the gate, they trailed the field by 10 lengths down the backstretch.

"It was a tough race to sacrifice to teach him something," Stevens said, "but we almost won the race, anyway. But he learned that he's got to relax early on in a race."

Point Given, running out of real estate at the end of the 1 1/16-mile trip, was a nose and one jump shy of beating Macho Uno. Voted the Eclipse Award, Macho Uno has been injured and will miss the Triple Crown. Dismounting in the Breeders' Cup, the first words Stevens said were: "I don't have to look any farther for my Kentucky Derby mount."

Many trainers end their horses' seasons after the Breeders' Cup, but, in effect, Baffert traded an early start in 2001 for one more race in December. Point Given won the Hollywood Futurity, just as Real Quiet had done about five months before his Derby win.

Now, three months later, Point Given leaps from the morning work tabs to the starting gate. Baffert seems comfortable with his position, as counter to Derby traditions as it is.

Horses with only two starts as a 3-year-old occasionally win the Derby, but it hasn't happened since Sunny's Halo, winner of the Rebel Handicap and the Arkansas Derby before his Kentucky Derby victory in 1983. Trainer David Cross also waited until March 26--later than Baffert's first move with Point Given--before testing Sunny's Halo as a 3-year-old.

The last 11 winners of the Derby have made their 3-year-old debuts in either January or February. The last Derby winner to start his season in March was Sunday Silence in 1989. His first of three pre-Derby preps came March 2.

"I'm really not doing anything different with this horse than I did with Real Quiet," Baffert said. "Real Quiet had a race in January at Golden Gate Fields, but you really can't count it. He hated the [muddy] track up there, he was eased, and he got absolutely nothing out of the race. Then he got sick on me. So he really had only two races before the Derby."

On his return, Real Quiet ran a pair of solid seconds. Artax beat him by a head in the San Felipe and Indian Charlie, his stablemate, was 2 1/4 lengths better in the Santa Anita Derby. The April 7 Santa Anita Derby is to be Point Given's launching pad to Louisville.

"The Kentucky Derby is a survival of the fittest," Baffert said. "Point Given is a very good horse, but he's also a very big horse and I want to make sure he doesn't hurt himself before we get there.

"These two races--one at a mile and a sixteenth, the other one at a mile and an eighth--and he should be ready. You can get caught up in all these prep races and not have anything left by the time you get to the one that counts. If I can get this horse in the gate at Churchill Downs, I think we'll be in real good shape."

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