02/21/2003 1:00AM

Big Cap may not belong to either of big two


PHOENIX - It's still a week away but next Saturday's Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap has some intriguing story lines. Here's the main one: Who is king of the hill, Congaree or Medaglia d'Oro?

After some Big Caps that failed to live up to expectations, this year's 10-furlong race has all the makings of a big deal. As a result of the political turmoil in the Middle East there may be a better field for Santa Anita's big race. That's because the connections of Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro may not wish to send their horses to the Middle East to run in the Dubai World Cup later in March. If they don't run in the World Cup, they have no reason to skip the Big Cap.

The involvement of Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro would bring about a summit along the lines of a Tiger Woods-Ernie Els duel. That's because Congaree's resurgence the past six months and Medaglia d'Oro's strong return win in the Strub stamp them as the game's top two handicap horses. The Big Cap will settle the issue - for now.

But there are negatives with both. Congaree's reemergence as a major power has come from a newfound patience, something he didn't exhibit much even when he was going good as a 3-year-old. His 4-year-old campaign, until the Cigar Mile, wasn't much more than a blip on the radar screen.

But he stalked and romped home in the Cigar Mile, looking like the Congaree of old. He returned in January's San Pasqual, which might have been even a better performance. Even so, in that 1 1/16-mile race the horse he beat into second, Kudos, last year's Oaklawn Handicap winner, was making his first start in about 10 months after surgery, so the win was somewhat diminished. The San Antonio, at 1 1/8 miles, was to provide him his biggest test. No problem. Again, he stalked and blasted home, ending up well clear of Milwaukee Brew and Pleasantly Perfect, two thoroughly legitimate Grade 1 animals.

But this time we're not talking a mile or 1 1/16 miles or 1 1/8 miles - this time it's 1 1/4 miles. The quality of opposition in the Big Cap is high, and even when Congaree was at the peak of his 3-year-old powers, it seemed as though the 1 1/4 miles of the Kentucky Derby and 1 3/16 miles of the Preakness were a smidge too much.

Medaglia d'Oro comes with a glowing resume, but there remain issues with him as well. When things go his way Medaglia d'Oro can be monstrous. But what about when things don't go his way? Yes, his Strub was terrific, but you can make a case there wasn't another Grade 1 horse in the race. His other wins? When he won the Jim Dandy in romping fashion who chased him? Quest and Gold Dollar - heard anything from them since? When he held on to win the Travers whom did he beat? Repent, who was second, was coming off a severe injury and a layoff, and some horse named Nothing Flat was third.

When Medaglia d'Oro ran against good horses in the Wood he got beat. When he ran in the Derby and Preakness he was no factor behind War Emblem. He ran well in the Belmont, yes, but he still got beat, this time by a 70-1 shot. Third-place finisher Sunday Break has done nothing since and War Emblem stumbled at the start and had no chance.

Medaglia d'Oro was freshened for the Breeders' Cup Classic and while he finished second he was really no factor. Volponi beat him by a half-dozen lengths, and Milwaukee Brew was only a neck behind in third.

So Medaglia d'Oro comes back breathing fire against Castle Gandolfo, Pass Rush, Olmodavor - nice horses all, but Grade 1 horses? Not really.

Then there's the issue of pace. Medaglia d'Oro's best races came when he was right up on the pace. Congaree has shown the ability to rate, but that was through faster splits. Can his jockey hold him off what figures to be a slow pace in the Big Cap?

Couldn't Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro knock heads hard early? And what about Tough Game, the streaking speedster who easily defeated allowance foes? If he runs in the Big Cap, he doesn't figure to be taking back.

What all of this means is the two biggies could be ripe for the plucking, and that has Richard Mandella may be smiling.

Kudos was no match for Congaree in the San Pasqual, but it was his first start in 10 months after surgery. He desperately needed the race, and Mandella immediately said afterward he was pointing Kudos for this race. The 10 furlongs figures ideal, as likely will be the pace.

But Mandella's biggest gun may well be Pleasantly Perfect. His Goodwood win at Santa Anita in October was brilliant, and only bleeding regulations in Illinois prevented him from running in the BC Classic. That may well have been a blessing. Now he has been freshened and gets to stay home. His third to Congaree in the San Antonio was excellent - it was his first start in four months, while Congaree had just romped in the San Pasqual.