05/23/2003 11:00PM

Congaree can join Met legends

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ELMONT, N.Y. - One race did it.

Belmont Park opened for the first time on Thursday, May 4, 1905, and the crowd, estimated at 35,000, was treated to a dazzling feature. Sysonby, a 3-year-old making his first start of the season, battled older horses in the Metropolitan Handicap at one mile, and when he held on to earn a dead heat with the 5-year-old Race King, to whom he conceded 10 pounds, the cheering could be heard in Manhattan. Or so they said.

That race was so memorable it earned for the Met Mile special status as one of two signature events, with the Belmont Stakes, as annual highlights of the New York season. Many exceptional horses, including Equipoise, Stymie, Tom Fool, Native Dancer, Kelso, Forego, and Buckpasser have written vivid pages of racing history in the Met. The rousing performance in the Met was also significant for Sysonby, a winner of 14 of 15 starts, who is regarded as one of the best horses America produced in the 20th century.

Congaree's precise place in the record books is still to be determined, but at 5 he appears to be at the height of his physical powers. With three victories in four starts and a photo loss at a distance that seems beyond him, he is off to what could be his finest campaign. He will be favored to win Monday's $500,000 Met Mile, which is an opportunity to advance his cause considerably.

Owned and bred by the Stonerside Stable, Congaree has won 10 of 18 starts and more than $2.2 million. He has been a winner throughout his career, but until this season he has lacked the consistency that horsemen equate with true quality.

"It's a matter of maturity," trainer Bob Baffert said. "In previous seasons he would be intense for his races. This season he is very relaxed. Gary Stevens commented about it the other day. It has had an effect on his appearance, too. He has filled out and looks like a mature horse."

Baffert took note of a change in his approach to Congaree. In the past he would point Congaree for specific goals, attempting to obtain that objective even if some rushing of schedule was involved. Now, the trainer advises, he no longer fixes on objectives but waits until Congaree is training forwardly and then runs him. It's an approach that has worked well in all his appearances except the Santa Anita Handicap.

"A mile and a quarter may be a little farther then he wants to go," Baffert said of the Big Cap distance, "although he was beaten only a head and was giving the winner, Milwaukee Brew, five pounds. He beat Milwaukee Brew at a mile and an eighth in the San Antonio, and was conceding three pounds."

As a son of Arazi, Congaree inherits the brilliance shone by that colt in winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile of 1991. Arazi's five-length score was one of the most impressive performances ever by a 2-year-old, but he never had a chance to follow up. He underwent surgery for bone spurs immediately after the Breeders' Cup, then was rushed to prepare for the Kentucky Derby. He was rushed in the Derby, leaving him no opportunity to make a decisive move.

We saw Arazi at his best for a brief moment at 2 and can only speculate what he would have done had he been managed more judiciously. Congaree, so effective this season, may give us an insight into the value of the Arazis.