02/04/2003 12:00AM

Bailey stars in dual role

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Hurricane Jerry blew into California last weekend, scooped up both the Strub Stakes and the San Antonio Handicap, paused for dinner with friends and a little golf, then left town still firmly attached to the two best older horses in North America.

By his own admission, Jerry Bailey used only a few of the tools at his disposal while riding Medaglia d'Oro to victory in the Strub. To hear him tell it, he basically left the gate, hung on, and turned left. The result was a seven-length win over the up-and-coming Olmo-davor, who never really knew what hit him.

In the San Antonio, however, Bailey made two or three Hall of Fame moves to extract Congaree from the inside post, put him in the clear, and keep him calm long enough to kick home with a world-class finishing punch to defeat Milwaukee Brew and Pleasantly Perfect by 2 1/4 lengths.

High marks must go to the people who produced Medaglia d'Oro and Congaree for their races. The trend these days is to see the best 3-year-olds burned out or retired before they reach maturity, thereby leaving the subsequent handicap ranks hungry for quality and relying on late-developers.

Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro are the exceptions. Both horses were leading lights during their turns in the Triple Crown spotlight - Congaree in 2001 and Medaglia d'Oro last year - and here they are still, defying the odds, just as good as the game could want.

Congaree has become the 5-year-old that Arazi, his sire, could only dream about being. Undaunted by Congaree's choppy 4-year-old campaign, during which he won three with style and lost three without a fight, Bob Baffert never gave up. It took a while, but Baffert has taught Congaree that it is okay to be fast, but to use it wisely. The result is a hard-wired, thoroughly professional handicap horse who appears to have his more extravagant, front-running ways behind him.

Medaglia d'Oro, on the other hand, is an emergent monster with "sky's the limit" written all over his dark, dappled coat. So smitten is his trainer, Bobby Frankel, that he tagged along behind Medaglia d'Oro last Saturday as the Strub Stakes horses were led from the Santa Anita receiving barn to the saddling paddock.

"If he runs to his looks," Frankel said, "he's a cinch."

In the case of the San Antonio, looks did kill. Even the guys on the ground could see what was happening.

"That's okay," cooed an assistant starter to one of Medaglia d'Oro's opponents as they assembled behind the gate. "We'll just turn your head this way so you don't have to look at him."

Bailey has ridden Medaglia d'Oro four times now (Congaree three), and when the rider refers to Medaglia d'Oro as "not a normal horse" he means it in a good way. A very good way.

"He doesn't have blazing speed, but he's more or less a lead kind of horse," Bailey said. "He has a high cruising speed. And although he doesn't blast off the first hundred yards or so, it doesn't take him long to hit that rhythm. Kind of like Skip Away."

Good company. Bailey rode the 1998 Horse of the Year 10 times and won eight major races, including the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Woodward, and the Hollywood Gold Cup.

"Skip Away was never very far off of it at the beginning," Bailey explained. "But in the middle of the race, if they were going slow at all, he'd just go for the gun. And that was okay for him.

"A horse like that almost takes over," Bailey continued. "And it's very easy for a rider. The best thing a rider can do on him is stay out of his way, so it's hard to take much credit."

As for the stick, Bailey has used it on Medaglia d'Oro twice: once in their half-length victory over Repent in the 2002 Travers Stakes and once in fruitless pursuit of Volponi in the 2002 Breeders' Cup Classic.

"I might have used it more for me than for him," Bailey said.

"He gives you everything he's got. And really, he's the kind of horse who wins his races before you get to the eighth pole."

In the past, it was the final furlong that posed the most challenge for Congaree. He would burn hot and fast, leaving little for the end.

"He was a blazer, the exact opposite of Medaglia d'Oro," Bailey said. "He is basically a miler that you need to talk out of that early speed, especially if he's going to get a mile and a quarter. Now he has learned to come out of that scenario."

At a mere million dollars, the Santa Anita Handicap on March 1 does not have a prayer to keep both Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro away from the $6 million Dubai World Cup, scheduled for March 28. Neither Mrs. Baffert nor Mrs. Frankel raised a foolish son.

Still, they will have several chances to meet during the long, entertaining season ahead, leading inevitably back to Santa Anita for the Breeders' Cup Classic. At least it's nice to know they can handle the track.