09/11/2003 12:00AM

Adding a touch of class

Congaree, handled by Mike Payne, arrives in Lexington, Ky. He will face four opponents in Saturday's Kentucky Cup Classic.

FLORENCE, Ky. - Sure, it's a little over the top. Labeling the Kentucky Cup as a "Day of Champions" involves quite a bit of hyperbole, but where there's smoke, there is a least some semblance of fire.

Indeed, now that it has reached a milestone - this is the 10th year for the Kentucky Cup - it can be fairly said that the event has drawn a fair share of champions and top-class horses. And happily for Turfway Park, another really good racehorse has come down the pike: Congaree will be here Saturday to run in the richest of the five Kentucky Cup races, the $350,000 Classic.

Trainer Bob Baffert is looking for an exceptional race from Congaree in the Grade 2 Classic, a 1 1/8-mile race that will serve as the 5-year-old horse's final prep for the Oct. 25 Breeders' Cup Classic.

"Is he doing good?" said Baffert. "Let me tell you one thing: If that sucker gets off the plane, that means he's doing great."

Having arrived safely Thursday at Turfway following a charter flight from California, Congaree will be racing for the first time in nearly nine weeks when he faces four other older horses in the Classic. Following his highly impressive three-length victory in the July 13 Hollywood Gold Cup, Congaree got a little break, said Baffert, with the intention being a final all-out assault on the Breeders' Cup.

Baffert, who has been prominent at the Keeneland September yearling sales for the past week or so, will make the short drive Saturday from Lexington to saddle Congaree, a 5-year-old who has earned more than $2.7 million for the Stonerside Stable of Bob and Janice McNair. Five years ago, Baffert was at Turfway when one of his stars, Silver Charm, dead-heated for first with Wild Rush in the Classic, a race that probably is the greatest in Kentucky Cup history.

The jockey on Wild Rush that afternoon was Pat Day, who will do his best Saturday to give Baffert another run for the Classic money. Day, the all-time leading rider in Kentucky Cup history with nine wins, again will be aboard Perfect Drift, the hard-hitting gelding who three months ago handed handicap sensation Mineshaft a rare defeat in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.

"We're trying to pick off the good ones one at a time," said Murray Johnson, trainer of Perfect Drift, a 4-year-old who has earned more than $1.6 million and has won 3 of 5 starts at Turfway. "We got Mineshaft. Now we'll try to get Congaree."

According to Johnson and Joe Deegan, the gelding's regular exercise rider, Perfect Drift has been training exceptionally well in recent weeks at the Trackside training facility in Louisville.

"It's going to be a great race," Deegan said.

Under handicap conditions, Congaree, with Edgar Prado to ride, will carry high weight of 124 pounds, four more than Perfect Drift.

The Classic has been carded as the third of the five Kentucky Cup races, with post time set for 5:37 p.m. Eastern. The series leads off with the ninth of 14 Saturday races, the $100,000 KC Juvenile Fillies, and the 10th, the $100,000 KC Juvenile.

Following the Classic are the $175,000 Turfway Breeders' Cup (race 12) for fillies and mares and the $100,000 KC Sprint for 3-year-olds. All of the supporting events carry Grade 3 ratings except the Juvenile Fillies, which is not graded.

Fox Sports Net will provide live television coverage of the Kentucky Cup in some areas of the country, focusing mostly on the Classic, on a one-hour show that begins at 5. In markets where Fox is unavailable, Television Games Network will provide coverage.

The weather forecast for Saturday in the greater Cincinnati region calls for mostly sunny skies and a high of about 80. With admission free for the first time, Turfway officials are hoping for an ontrack crowd approaching 10,000.

First post is 1:10 p.m. Eastern. The program also includes four simulcasts from opening day at Kentucky Downs.

The field

Kentucky Cup Classic

Purse $350,000; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 2

1Even the ScoreR. Albarado11515-1
2Crafty ShawS. Sellers1156-1
3Perfect DriftP. Day1207-5
4CongareeE. Prado1244-5
5M B SeaC. Velasquez11320-1

* Odds by Vance Hanson