Updated on 09/16/2011 7:27AM

All eyes on Congaree's return

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GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - Congaree, who could develop into a top handicap horse this season, launches his 4-year-old campaign Monday in the Grade 3, $300,000 Lone Star Park Handicap. His presence will be the focus of a seven-stakes card worth $1 million, and is a coup for Lone Star Park as trainer Bob Baffert had considered bringing the talented colt back at Belmont Park in the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap.

Congaree was one of the best 3-year-olds around last year, winning the Grade 1 Swaps and Grade 2 Wood Memorial and finishing third in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Upon his return, he finds a handicap division without a leader, perhaps because some of his brightest peers, Point Given, Monarchos, and A P Valentine, have retired.

Will he fill a void? That question can only be answered over time, but Congaree can take a step in that direction Monday with a convincing win in the Lone Star Park Handicap. To do so, however, he must overcome a 10-month layoff necessitated by a wrenched knee.

Congaree, who will race with blinkers off, injured himself in his last start, when he finished third as the favorite in the Grade 1 Jim Dandy at Saratoga on Aug. 4. Surgery was not required, and while there is always the question of whether the colt will return as good he was following an injury, he has been training sharply at Churchill Downs.

"He's coming back great," said Baffert, who trains Congaree for Bob and Janice McNair of Houston.

Baffert and company kept Congaree out of the Met Mile for his first start back because of the depth of the field and because the one-turn mile is demanding. Congaree instead will be a prohibitive favorite in the Lone Star Park Handicap, a 1 1/16-mile race that drew a full field of horses hoping to catch a colt vulnerable following the long layoff.

They could be disappointed. Congaree made a striking physical impression at Lone Star on Saturday morning for a routine gallop, and overall has worked well for his comeback. He will also have a top rider in the saddle in Pat Day.

If an upset is to be had, however, those most capable of achieving it are Freedom Crest, third last out in the Grade 2 San Bernardino at Santa Anita; Unrullah Bull, winner of the Grade 3 Texas Mile; Reba's Gold, runner-up in the Texas Mile; or Valhol, a two-time stakes winner over the winter at Fair Grounds.

The Lone Star Park Handicap anchors the annual Lone Star Million Day program, which is the richest day of racing in Texas.

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