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Baffert takes aim with both barrels

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Is Point Given the next to wear the Crown?

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It has been 23 years since the last Triple Crown winner, and the public has grown wary of worshipping false idols. The streak is almost as long as the 25-year gap between between Citation in 1948 and Secretariat in 1973, the longest drought since the term Triple Crown was popularized by racing writer Charles Hatton in the 1930's.

Fusaichi Pegasus inspired hope last year, when he became the first favorite to win the Kentucky Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979. But he, too, came up short.

Now, Point Given, a powerful chestnut-colored colt, arrives as the most promising Triple Crown candidate from the class of 2001. If he should prove to be a horse of destiny, beginning with the 127th Kentucky Derby on May 5 at Churchill Downs, his success would be the high point for The Thoroughbred Corporation and conclude a story filled with serendipitous meetings and shrewd decisions.

The Thoroughbred Corporation, an ownership group headed by Prince Ahmed Salman of Saudi Arabia, has won Breeders' Cup races with the likes of Anees, Jewel Princess, and Spain. But Point Given can take Prince Ahmed and his financial partners to a new level. It is something the prince covets.

"The one thing he told me when I took the job," said Alex Hassinger Jr., who used to train privately for Prince Ahmed, "is 'I'm in the game to have fun.' He's a great guy to be around. High energy. He's got a fun-loving personality, but he's very involved in everything that goes on."

Point Given is a homebred colt by Thunder Gulch. He was not a $4 million yearling purchase by Mr. Prospector, as was Fusaichi Pegasus. But Point Given's powerful races have earned respect from rival trainers, who fear Point Given far more than those in the 2000 Derby who faced Fusaichi Pegasus.

"My horse isn't afraid of anything - except Point Given," said David Hofmans, the trainer of Millennium Wind. Howard Zucker, whose Crafty C.T. finished second to Point Given in the Santa Anita Derby, wanted no more of Point Given after that race. "If that horse doesn't win the Triple Crown, something's wrong," Zucker said. As a result, Point Given figures to be a shorter priced Derby favorite than the 2-1 on Fusaichi Pegasus.

Prince Ahmed (pronounced "ACH-med") is part of the ruling family of Saudi Arabia. His father is the governor of Riyadh. His uncle, his father's brother, is the country's king. Prince Ahmed, 42, lives in a palace in Riyadh with his wife and their five children. He has extensive publishing holdings in Saudi Arabia. That is his business. Racing in his passion.

Prince Ahmed's involvement dates back more than 20 years. While living in Newport Beach, Calif., as a student at the University of California, Irvine, Prince Ahmed read a magazine that had an ad containing a picture of the stallion Jumping Hill. Being partial to gray horses, the prince wanted to see Jumping Hill, so he dialed a number listed in the stallion ad.

"That's how we met," said Richard Mulhall, at the time a trainer and a part owner in the farm.

Mulhall started training for the prince, who raced as Universal Stable. In the mid-1990's, with Prince Ahmed having taken on partners for the newly formed The Thoroughbred Corporation, he asked Mulhall to stop training and oversee the business.

Mulhall is now the president of The Thoroughbred Corporation, which is based on a farm in Bradbury, Calif, a few miles east of Santa Anita. Prince Ahmed has a home there, too. Mulhall and his staff break the yearlings there, then send them to numerous trainers, including Steve Asmussen, John Kimmel, D. Wayne Lukas, Bill Mott, John Shirreffs, and Bob Baffert, the trainer of Point Given.

The prince and Mulhall seem an unlikely pair, but they have become close friends and business partners. Mulhall, 62, a former stuntman, was a trainer for more than 30 years. Although close friends, like character actor Lee McLaughlin, swear allegiance to him, Mulhall's public personality can sometimes lack warmth. He has a bad back, and soldiers on despite being in constant pain. Some trainers, notably Wally Dollase, have clashed with him. And lost.

The prince steadfastly stands by Mulhall, but Mulhall stresses that the prince "makes the final decision" on everything.

Mulhall said the prince currently has 256 horses, ranging from broodmares to runners to yearlings and weanlings. Turko's Turn, the dam of Point Given, resides at Mill Ridge Farm, where she recently had a filly by Charismatic. Who was Turko's Turn bred back to? "Who do you think?" Mulhall asked, playfully. "Thunder Gulch."

Baffert became part of the mix only in the past 16 months. He and Mulhall were introduced by mutual friends more than a decade ago, when Baffert was largely training Quarter Horses at Los Alamitos, and Mulhall would send him the occasional horse he thought would fit better at that smaller track. When Mulhall stopped training, he convinced most of his clients to give their horses to Baffert, who by then had moved to training Thoroughbreds.

"He's a good trainer," Mulhall said. "He's good with young horses, older horses, claiming horses. His horses stay around a long time. And he's got a good staff."

Baffert and Mulhall had a brief falling out two years ago, but it was quickly patched up. In January 2000, after owner Aaron Jones and his wife, Marie, fired Baffert, removing horses such as Forest Camp, Prime Timber, and Riboletta from his barn, the prince stepped in.

"You lost him. We will fill the gap," Prince Ahmed told Baffert.

Baffert first saw Point Given at The Thoroughbred Corporation's Bradbury farm in February 2000. He was one of several 2-year-olds Baffert asked to train. But he was not his first choice.

"The prince told me to pick some out," Baffert said. "My number one pick was a Wild Again colt, but that horse didn't turn out to be anything."

Point Given, Baffert recalled, "was very well-balanced," despite his large size.

"Usually big horses like that are slow plodders," Baffert said. "But I thought I'd take a shot with him. You look at him, and you say, 'He'll go a mile and a quarter,' " the Derby distance.

Point Given next came to Baffert's attention last summer. When Baffert's main stable goes to Del Mar, he keeps his second stringers, including many of his late-developing 2-year-olds, at Hollywood Park. His assistant there, Tim Yakteen, called Baffert and told him he thought Point Given "could really run."

Point Given finally made his debut at Del Mar, finishing second at 19-1. After winning a maiden race at Del Mar in his next start, Point Given traveled to Turfway Park and won the Kentucky Cup Juvenile.

"He looked like a drunk coming down the lane," Baffert said. "His head was up in the air. He was a big baby."

From there, Point Given went to Belmont Park, where he showed more early speed than usual and finished second to A P Valentine in the Champagne Stakes. Baffert, believing Point Given had been moved too soon by jockey Kent Desormeaux - "He rushed in there, not realizing how much speed he had," Baffert said of Desormeaux - switched to Gary Stevens for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs.

Stevens grabbed Point Given leaving the gate, but the entire field folded over on him, and Point Given, who had started from the rail, was shuffled back to last. He finished furiously and just missed by a nose of catching Macho Uno.

"I had no chance," Stevens told Baffert.

"I was disappointed we didn't win, but I knew what we had," Baffert said.

After a victory in the Hollywood Futurity in December, Baffert gave Point Given a brief break, believing a two-race schedule of prep races at Santa Anita would bring Point Given to the Derby in ideal fashion. He returned in the San Felipe Stakes and won easily by 2 1/4 lengths. And in his last start, Point Given stormed home 5 1/2 lengths best in the Santa Anita Derby.

His Beyer Speed Figures have steadily progressed, from 95 in the Champagne, to 99 in the Breeders' Cup, 101 in the Hollywood Futurity, 105 in the San Felipe, and 110 in the Santa Anita Derby.

Point Given is so large that Baffert said he "barely fits" into his stall at Churchill Downs. "He's afraid to lay down," Baffert said. "I think he's afraid he won't be able to get up." The colt weighs approximately 1,260 pounds, 200 pounds above average. He is so wide that Stevens uses a special girth to affix the saddle. "It's extra, extra large," Baffert said.

Yet despite his size, Point Given does not throw his weight around when he's off the track. "In the stall, he's a puppy," Baffert said. "He's very sweet. As big as he is, if he was nasty, oh man."

Baffert has a strong one-two Derby punch, with Point Given and Congaree, the Wood Memorial winner who is owned by Robert and Janice McNair's Stonerside Stable. It is Point Given who has accomplished the most so far. He has done more than any horse in this year's Derby. And he has the potential to be something special.

"If you wanted to build the perfect Derby horse - in terms of size, stamina, and power, handling a mile and a quarter, and being quick and fast - it would be him," Baffert said. "He's made the right way."