01/29/2004 12:00AM

Congaree defends San Antonio title


ARCADIA, Calif. - A year after winning his first San Antonio Handicap, Congaree will defend the title in the familiar surroundings of his home track Saturday at Santa Anita.

Congaree again will carry high weight in the San Antonio, is expected to go favored, and will have little company on the lead.

The opposition is led by Pleasantly Perfect, a closer who upset the Breeders' Cup Classic at 14-1 last October. The San Antonio is his first start since then.

Last year in the San Antonio, Congaree shook clear of Fleetstreet Dancer in early stretch and won impressively, the second of his five stakes wins in 2003.

There was no year-end championship for Congaree when the Eclipse Awards were announced last Monday, but his career record of 12 wins from 23 starts and earnings of $3,241,400 have made him one of the top handicap horses of recent years.

Saturday's is Congaree's 21st consecutive stakes appearance, a streak that began with a victory in the 2001 Wood Memorial. Through most of those races, Congaree has raced on or near the lead. That style will make him tough to beat in the Grade 2 San Antonio, run over 1 1/8 miles on dirt.

"He runs better when he's not on the lead," trainer Bob Baffert insisted. "He's very relaxed right now. He's doing fine."

Other opponents include Fleetstreet Dancer, who returns in the San Antonio and whose career has changed remarkably in the last year. In November, Fleetstreet Dancer pulled a 48-1 upset in the $2.3 million Japan Cup Dirt, his first stakes win.

Star Cross and Nose the Trade will be longshots. They finished 1-2 in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap on Jan. 3.

Nose the Trade has raced on or near the lead in his last two starts, including a second in the Grade 3 Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park on Dec. 6. Trained by Bobby Frankel, Nose the Trade, 6, has the best chance of staying close to Congaree.

Richard Mandella, who trains Pleasantly Perfect, is hoping that Congaree is pressured early.

"It's kind of his advantage," Mandella said of Congaree's lone speed.

Pleasantly Perfect has won half of his eight career starts at Santa Anita. He has won the last two runnings of the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap over 1 1/8 miles. The Breeders' Cup Classic was run over 1 1/4 miles.

Mandella is using the San Antonio as a prep to two stakes in March for Pleasantly Perfect - the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 6 and the $6 million Dubai World Cup on March 27.

"I'm not complaining going in, he's doing great," Mandella said. "The main thing is to get a good race and get set up for the big races."

Fleetstreet Dancer presents bettors with a puzzle. He placed in four stakes last year, including the Goodwood, before the upset in Japan over a sloppy track at 1 5/16 miles.

"He hasn't shown any ill effects from the trip," trainer Doug O'Neill said. "We realize this is tougher than the Japan Cup Dirt for a tenth of the purse. We're getting weight and that's encouraging."

Darrell Vienna trains Star Cross, who prepped for the San Pasqual with a victory in the Forty Niner Handicap at Golden Gate Fields. Last fall, Star Cross was third behind Pleasantly Perfect in the Goodwood, racing close to the pace early.

In recent starts, Star Cross has come from behind. Vienna is worried that Congaree will have an insurmountable early lead and run like he did in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on Nov. 30, when he was close to the pace and pulled clear to win by 5 1/4 lengths.

"If Congaree runs that race, he looks invincible," Vienna said. "My horse is doing well, but it's not encouraging."

The field

San Antonio Handicap

Purse: $250,000; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 2

1Fleetstreet DancerJ. Court1168-1
2Star CrossV. Espinoza11312-1
3CongareeJ. Bailey1243-5
4Pleasantly PerfectA. Solis1218-5
5Nose The TradeD. Flores11312-1

* Odds by Michael Hammersly