08/02/2001 12:00AM

All eyes on versatile Congaree


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - A remarkable equine athlete makes his second New York appearance in Saturday's $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes for 3-year-olds. If favored Congaree, owned by Stonerside Stable, shows as much verve in the Jim Dandy as he did this spring in winning Aqueduct's Wood Memorial by almost three lengths from Monarchos, then the outlook for the million-dollar Travers on Aug. 25 will narrow perceptibly.

Congaree, who established his bona fides against the best 3-year-olds in the country when he finished third in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, comes to the Jim Dandy off a strong performance in the Grade 1 Swaps Stakes at Hollywood Park. He won the Swaps by four lengths after leading all the way under deft handling by Gary Stevens, who slowed the pace to suit his requirements. The homebred Congaree has versatility and many believe he will go on to become one of the finest horses to carry the green and white colors of Houston's Robert and Janice McNair.

The McNairs, who purchased the magnificent private training area on Saratoga's Nelson Avenue originally built by the Whitney family, have had an interest in, or outright ownership of, such good ones as Touch Gold, Coronado's Quest, Tuzla, Chilukki, Tout Charmant, Cafe Latte, and others. Congaree has a winning tradition to uphold, plus the assets to make it happen. He is also the beneficiary of a shortage of competitive speed in the Jim Dandy. Speed might have compromised him and maximized the chances of that stone closer A P Valentine, runner-up in the Preakness and Belmont.

A P Valentine came out of the classics with distinction, and has trained smartly for the Jim Dandy, Zito noted. But without a brisk pace in front, his closing thrusts lose their punch. That has been the way here at Saratoga for more than a century, during which time this track has become notorious for its many shocking upsets. The greatest upset of them all? No, not the defeat of Man o' War in the Sanford Memorial of 1919 by the aptly named Upset. No, not the defeat of Secretariat in the Whitney of 1973 by Onion. The upset of upsets was the defeat of Triple Crown winner Gallant Fox in the Travers of 1930.

Gallant Fox was 1-2 under the handy guy, Earl Sande, as a small field contested Saratoga's signature race on a muddy track. But the Fox of Belair got caught up in a duel on the lead with Whichone, and as they battled, the 100-1 Jim Dandy came pouring through an opening on the rail to carry the day. He never won another race but they honor his memory each year with the running of the Jim Dandy.

Voodoo that Clement do on turf

Christophe Clement has put many a nice filly on the grass in recent years. Danish, Liseux Rose, Trampoli, Coretta, Rumpipumpy, Sardaniya, and Khumba Mela are just a few. The latest addition to this distinguished list is Voodoo Dancer, who was impressive here the other day winning a division of the Lake George Stakes by more than four lengths under Jerry Bailey.

The Green Hills Farm Stable of Dimitrious Katsaras purchased Voodoo Dancer (by Kingmambo) at the Keeneland September yearling sales for $200,000 and Clement saddled her for the first time last September, with indifferent results. He put her on the grass a month later and she improved dramatically. She won by more than six lengths, and repeated that success before the conclusion of the season. This year she is 3 for 4, has shown steady improvement, and appears ready for a drive to prominence.

"She has a great deal of ability," Clement observed. "She is very small but has a big heart. If she rebounds from this race promptly, we may send her to Del Mar for the Oaks on Aug. 18. If she needs more time, we may try her in the Garden City at Belmont on Sept. 9. We believe she has a future."