Updated on 09/17/2011 10:55AM

Congaree goes Hollywood for Cup work

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Congaree, with Mike Smith aboard, begins his five-furlong breeze Tuesday at Hollywood Park.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Bob Baffert keeps most of his better Southern California-based horses at Santa Anita throughout the year, even when racing is being conducted at Hollywood Park, where he keeps the remainder of his runners. Baffert, however, has seen a number of the horses he trains at Santa Anita struggle over the deeper surface at Hollywood Park.

So, with the biggest race of the meeting - Sunday's $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup - just days away, Baffert on Tuesday chose to send Congaree, the race's likely favorite, across town and give him a workout over the Hollywood Park surface.

"I thought I better bring him over here and work over this quagmire," Baffert said on an overcast Tuesday morning. "I've got horses that either love it or hate it. Horses here are strung out for a mile. It's tough to ship in here from Santa Anita. Horses scramble at the start, then get stuff blasted in their face."

The test drive went smoothly. Congaree, with Mike Smith aboard, cruised along effortlessly, earning a well-deserved "breezing" notation from the track's clockers, while covering five furlongs in 1:00.60. The time was the sixth-best of 22 at the distance, but Congaree could not have gone any easier. Baffert, concerned before the work over how Congaree would handle the surface, afterward was worried he might not have done enough.

"I wish I would have had him pick it up," Baffert said.

He was nitpicking. Congaree appears to be coming into the Gold Cup in excellent shape. He will be attempting to rebound from a poor try in the Metropolitan Handicap, and will be attempting to win at 1 1/4 miles for the first time in his career.

In the Met Mile, Congaree got away poorly, rushed up to contest a hot pace, then tired to finish sixth of eight. He was ridden that day by Gary Stevens, but Jerry Bailey - who won three times in four tries with Congaree during the winter - will be back aboard Sunday.

Baffert said he decided to use Bailey because the jockey "wasn't doing anything else this weekend."

Baffert added that he believes the Met Mile performance should be thrown out.

"I had a gut feeling that I should have scratched the horse," Baffert said. "Everything just wasn't right. He hit the side of the gate at the start. He hit his stifle pretty good; he was pretty sore on it for a couple of days. Then, with the mud hitting him in the belly, he took off. All the horses who did well in that race came from way off the pace. Gary took care of him. He's a difficult horse to ride."

Congaree's ability to handle 1 1/4 miles might be seen as a more significant concern, but it's more perception than reality. Although Baffert admits that Congaree is best "when he's really, really right, at a mile, a mile and a sixteenth, a mile and an eighth," Congaree has run well in his only previous tries at 1 1/4 miles.

He was third after pressing a hot pace in the 2001 Kentucky Derby, and lost a heartbreaker to Milwaukee Brew earlier this year in the Santa Anita Handicap. Congaree had to give Milwaukee Brew five pounds in that race, and lost by a head after a stretch-long battle. The Gold Cup is weight-for-age, so all runners, including Congaree, will carry 124 pounds.

"Look at the difference weight can make. Mineshaft lost to Perfect Drift because he had to give him weight," Baffert said, referring to last month's Stephen Foster Handicap.

The Gold Cup is expected to have a field of six, perhaps seven. In addition to Congaree, the confirmed starters are Golden Ticket (Patrick Valenzuela riding), Harlan's Holiday (John Velazquez), Kudos (Alex Solis), Piensa Sonando (Stevens), and Western Pride (Jose Valdivia Jr.). Rodion (David Flores) is possible.

Golden Ticket, who left Hollywood Park in May and won a pair of races at Philadelphia Park for trainer Cliff Sise, was scheduled to return to Southern California late Tuesday.

Harlan's Holiday, who scratched from last Saturday's Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park in order to run in the Gold Cup, is scheduled to fly here on Thursday for trainer Todd Pletcher.