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Baffert's Derby Anxiety Takes Flight

Horse racing: Trainer has Congaree ready for Wood Memorial, but also must deal with news of Point Given's wild gallop.


NEW YORK — There are worse problems for horse trainers than having two live-wire horses, one of them the expected favorite for the Kentucky Derby. But that can double the anxiety even for a customarily laid-back trainer such as Bob Baffert.

He chuckled about the incident Friday at Belmont Park. But on Thursday, having boarded a plane from LAX to New York for today's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, where his Congaree is second-favorite behind Monarchos, Baffert tested a flight attendant's patience with his cell phone as he sat on the runway, trying to learn about Point Given's latest shenanigans at Santa Anita.

As flight attendants are supposed to do, she ordered Baffert to turn off his phone as they neared takeoff. But he needed the phone because his barn had potentially catastrophic problems.

Point Given, the Santa Anita Derby winner and consensus favorite for the Kentucky Derby, had thrown his rider during a morning gallop and run off. Jim Barnes, Baffert's right-hand man at Santa Anita, was on his phone, giving the trainer a play by play of the developments.

Point Given weighed 1,260 pounds when he won at Santa Anita last Saturday and is not to be taken lightly, especially when he's running amok without his bridle. Apparently his rider, Jesse "Pepe" Aragon, unintentionally pulled off the bridle as he tried to hold the horse after he sent the rider flying forward.

Fortunately for Barnes and Baffert, the colt has the homing instincts of certain pigeons, and after running loose for a full minute on the track, he returned to the Baffert barn, which is a couple of hundred yards from the track. A Baffert stablehand looked up, and there was Point Given, standing calmly, waiting to be returned to his stall.

"I won't be sure about the Derby until the horse gets in the gate," said Baffert, who'll seek his third Derby win at Churchill Downs on May 5.

"This shows you that we've got a long way to go before we get to the Derby. What would have happened if this horse had run into a car?

"Dick Mulhall [general manager for the stable of Ahmed Salman, owner of Point Given] says he misses being a trainer. He wouldn't have missed it Thursday."

Congaree is a pussycat by comparison, and he'll be running today against Monarchos, the Florida Derby winner, and four other rivals in their final Churchill Downs tuneup, the $750,000 Wood Memorial.

The comparison Baffert prefers to draw between Congaree and Point Given is that today's runner, who's raced only three times and never been tested in a stake, could be as good as the Santa Anita Derby winner.

"I think Congaree's pretty close to Point Given already," Baffert said. "He's run a (1:34 1/5) mile at Santa Anita, and after that he did a mile and a sixteenth in 1:42, on a day when they ran the stake only a tick faster. I don't know how good Monarchos is, but we expect to win unless Monarchos is a monster."

Congaree is a son of Arazi and Mari's Sheba. He was bred by and races for Bob and Janice McNair of the Stonerside Stable. Arazi, after running one of the most brilliant Breeders' Cup races ever--coming from 13th in a 14-horse field to win by five lengths in the 1991 Juvenile at Churchill Downs--underwent surgery on both knees and was just a shell of himself as he finished eighth in the 1992 Kentucky Derby.

"This horse can show you a move like Arazi made in the Breeders' Cup," Baffert said. "The McKathan brothers [J.B. and Kevin] broke this horse at their place in Florida, and they told me he was going to be a good one before I ever got him."

Congaree, named after a river in South Carolina, was supposed to make his debut last August at Saratoga, but a cough prevented Baffert from entering him at the upstate New York track, and the colt landed with the rest of the Baffert horses at Del Mar. In his debut there in September, he finished sixth while lugging out, sometimes an indication that a horse is hurting.

X-rays showed that he had a problem, and a chip was surgically removed from his right knee. Baffert didn't bring him back to the races until February at Santa Anita, where he was a five-length winner at a mile. In mid-March, he was stretched out to 1 1/16 miles and won by eight lengths.

The Wood is 1 1/8 miles, which is one complete revolution of Aqueduct's main track.

Victor Espinoza, who rode Congaree in his two wins, has the mount today. Baffert offered the mount to Jerry Bailey, who has won the Kentucky Derby with Sea Hero (1993) and Grindstone (1996). Bailey spurned the chance, signing on to ride Hero's Tribute, a son of Sea Hero, in today's $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Baffert thinks Bailey is making a mistake.

No matter what happens today, Baffert has a plane reserved for Congaree to be flown to Churchill Downs on Monday. From California, Point Given will be flown to Kentucky on Wednesday, perhaps with extra chaperoning after Thursday's adventure at Santa Anita, which was not the first time he's acted up.

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