Updated on 09/17/2011 9:40AM

Bet San Pasqual favorite at own risk

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It is fair to suggest horseplayers betting the feature-race favorite Saturday at Santa Anita may be committing acts of parimutuel folly. So let this be a warning. Congaree is the most accomplished horse in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap, but what difference does it make?

Nine days into the winter stakes calendar, wagering on the best horse has been mostly a losing proposition. If the pattern holds Saturday, trouble is brewing for Congaree. It has been that kind of meet.

Dec. 26: Sunday Break is bet down to 2.60-1 in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes, despite a six-month layoff. A former candidate for the Triple Crown races, Sunday Break is empty at the head of the lane and finishes dead last. So much for comebackers who are considered the "class" of the field.

Dec. 28: You gets hammered to 4-5 in the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes, despite a sketchy work pattern since her most recent start 12 weeks earlier. You was not originally intended to run, but when Bobby Frankel's main La Brea candidate, Sightseek, took ill, You was rushed into action. She duels for the lead, is spent in midstretch, and finishes fifth. Second choice Bella Bellucci also runs poorly, a no-threat fourth at 3.60-1.

Dec. 29: Decarchy starts at even money in the Grade 2, nine-furlong San Gabriel Handicap, though he has never raced beyond 1 1/16 miles in the United States. Over a "good" course, he saves every inch of ground, takes aim at the head of the lane, and sputters third to the wire.

Dec. 31: Rolly Polly goes off at 1.10-1 in the Grade 3 Monrovia Handicap. A deep closer, her chances in the turf sprint are compromised by the position of the temporary rails. Placed at 24 feet, the rails serve to narrow the turf course in the stretch, creating a funnel effect off the hill and onto the main course that leads to severe traffic congestion. Rolly Polly finds the trouble, is unable to get clear, and finishes seventh.

Jan. 1: A winner, finally. Kona Gold starts at 1.30-1 in the Grade 3 El Conejo Handicap, his first start in two months. Hard-ridden throughout, he scrapes paint through the turn and wears down allowance horse Radiata by a neck. Kona Gold's final time was an ordinary 1:02.63.

The grand total - five graded stakes, one $4.60 winner. While it is a bit premature to suggest the early-season results form an irrefutable pattern, they do illustrate the potential minefield for horseplayers who accept low odds on the "best horse." And yes, it is very simple for a past-posting handicapper to look back and see everything crystal-clearly. But a familiar expression applies to betting horses: Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Which brings up the subject of Congaree. His participation in the San Pasqual has to be shaded with skepticism, for there are similarities between Congaree and other graded-stakes disappointments. Perhaps Congaree will win the San Pasqual, but for horseplayers, there is more to winning than the basic handicapping task of identifying the best horse. Congaree faces several issues that suggest vulnerability, in which case yet another graded stakes could be ripe for an upset.

Start with Congaree's trainer. Bob Baffert has won the Santa Anita winter training title five straight years and is likely to win it again this year. Yet Baffert was winless with his first 13 starters at the meet. The blemish brings to mind Sunday Break's trainer, Neil Drysdale, whose form leading to Santa Anita was below par. Since the start of September, Drysdale has been just 5 for 56. This is not a criticism of either Baffert or Drysdale, it is only fact. Hot and cold streaks are part of the handicapping equation, and reason to be dubious when a cold trainer starts a good horse at a short price.

Another reason for concern is the planned campaign for Congaree. Following his overpowering Nov. 30 win in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile, early indications were that Congaree would be given a break and be pointed for spring. It is reminiscent of the plan for You before she was plucked from the sidelines for a run in the La Brea. Instead of getting time off, Congaree is back in the game. While his workout pattern leading to the Cigar Mile was powerful, he shows only two published workouts in preparation for the San Pasqual.

At risk of oversimplification, Congaree may be as vulnerable as Sunday Break, You, Decarchy, Rolly Polly, and even El Conejo winner Kona Gold. The question is whether there is a longshot who can take advantage. Is there a horse such as Malibu upsetter Debonair Joe ($55.60), La Brea winner Got Koko ($36.60), San Gabriel winner Grammarian ($21.40), or Monrovia winner Lil Sister Stich ($17)? All three of those were moving up in class.

While the deep San Pasqual field includes obvious contenders such as comebacker Kudos and speedy Hot Market, the best gamble in the field may be a horse starting in a North American graded stakes for the first time.

Cottage's pace and speed figures are ascending with every race. He enters the San Pasqual off his third consecutive, and grittiest, victory, he is in light at 114 pounds (Congaree carries 121), and the San Pasqual has been the goal for Cottage ever since his most recent start.

Is it folly to suggest an allowance horse can win a Grade 2? Perhaps. But early this winter at Santa Anita, the best horses are taking nosedives, while up-and-comers fill their shoes. Assuming that Congaree is vulnerable, the San Pasqual is ripe to be won by a rising import from Argentina - Cottage in an upset.

SANTA ANITA IS NOT PLAYING FAVORITES

DateRaceHorseOddsFinishWinnerWin payoff
Dec. 26G1 Malibu Stakes Sunday Break 2.60-1 11th Debonair Joe $55.60
Dec. 28 G1 La Brea Stakes You .80-1 5th Got Koko $36.60
Dec. 29 G2 San Gabriel Hcp Decarchy 1.00-13rd Grammarian $21.40
Dec. 31G3 Monrovia Hcp Rolly Polly 1.10-1 7th Lil Sister Stich $17.00
Jan. 1G3 El Conejo Hcp Kona Gold 1.30-1 1st Kona Gold $4.60