Belmont set for budding rivalry
By Richard Rosenblatt
ELMONT, N.Y. -- Affirmed-Alydar it isn't. Sunday Silence-Easy Goer, perhaps.
Then again, who needs old rivalry comparisons when a new one looms in the Belmont Stakes?
There are nine 3-year-olds going 1 1/2 miles around the sweeping turns at Belmont Park on Saturday, but all eyes will be on the matchup of Kentucky Derby winner Monarchos vs. Preakness winner Point Given.
"It's a showdown. It's going to be a great showdown," Point Given's trainer Bob Baffert said at Wednesday's post position draw. "For the Derby, we didn't show up. Monarchos didn't show up for the Preakness. This one will be woulda, shoulda, coulda."
John Ward, who trains Monarchos, agrees.
"I look at it as the last man standing, but then again it might not be either of us," Ward said. "But one of us is going to come out in better shape than the other and probably solve the discussion."
Both trainers have visions of Point Given and Monarchos hooking up at the head of the stretch for a duel to the finish. Then again, Baffert and Ward are aware there's plenty of competition.
"I'd like to see both of them show up and both of them together turning for home for the fans," Baffert said. "I think that might happen, although A P Valentine looks like he's really rounding out again and it looks like he's going to right there with us."
A P Valentine, who was forced to pull back twice in the Derby but still finished seventh, was second in the Preakness on May 19, and trainer Nick Zito says his Rick Pitino-owned colt is ready for another big effort.
"I'm positive he'll run a great race," Zito said as he prepared his 11th Belmont starter in search of his first victory to go with four second-place finishes. "We've preached about him over the last few months and he's starting to show everyone why I am so high on him."
Ward, saddling his first Belmont starter, mentioned Thunder Blitz, who skipped the Preakness after running fourth in the Derby, as another threat.
"He's put weight back on and he looks good," Ward said after watching the Joe Orseno-trained colt work the other day. "And Orseno has played the role of spoiler before."
Orseno's Red Bullet beat Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus in the Preakness last year.
Point Given and Monarchos have nearly identical records entering the Belmont, which matches the Derby winner vs. Preakness winner for the first time since 1994.
Owned by The Thoroughbred Corp., headed by Prince Ahmed Salman of Saudi Arabia, Point Given has won has won six of 10 starts with three seconds for earnings of $1,868,500; Monarchos, owned by Oklahoma oilman John Oxley, has four wins in eight starts and totals $1,605,630. Both have won two Grade I races -- Point Given the Preakness and Santa Anita Derby; Monarchos the Kentucky and Florida derbies.
Both trainers were mystified with their colts' efforts in the Triple Crown races they lost -- Baffert said a quick pace and firm track at Churchill Downs doomed Point Given's Derby chances; Ward said a soft and slower Pimlico racing strip was not to Monarchos' liking.
Point Given, with Gary Stevens aboard, is the early 8-5 favorite. The son of 1995 Derby and Belmont winner Thunder Gulch went off as the favorite in the Derby and Preakness. Monarchos, ridden by New York's top rider Jorge Chavez, was 10-1 in the Derby and second choice in the Preakness.
While the Belmont will serve as the Triple Crown "rubber match" between the colts, the two could hook up again in four months back at Belmont -- in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
"Maybe the real showdown is in the Classic," Ward said. "Both horse will be well rested and will have put in a couple of races in the summer and fall. It's also a race you plan for. We're pointing to the Travers, but we're flexible in how we get to the Classic. In the Triple Crown, you can't be flexible. The schedule is set for you."
Affirmed was the last horse to win the Triple Crown, with Alydar finishing second in the 1978 Derby, Preakness and Belmont. The two ran against each other 10 times in 1977-78, with Affirmed winning seven and Alydar three, including one when Affirmed was disqualified in the '78 Travers after finishing first.
In 1989, Sunday Silence won the Derby and Preakness, but Easy Goer spoiled his Triple Crown bid in the Belmont