12/03/2003 1:00AM

Congaree had a year for the ages


PHILADELPHIA - Despite Mike Watchmaker's plea, Congaree is unlikely to get any 2003 championship honors. And that is a shame.

If there were an award for (a) most consistent horse over the longest period of time or (b) most versatile horse, Congaree would be a cinch on both counts. Alas, there are no such awards.

Thus, Congaree will have to be content with this: From Nov. 30, 2002 until Nov. 29, 2003, he was as good as it gets in modern American racing. He was fast and consistent. He raced on both coasts with terrific results. He won at seven furlongs once, a mile twice, 1 1/16 miles, 1 1/8 miles, and 1 1/4 miles. He won four Grade 1 stakes and two Grade 2 stakes.

When a horse reels off Beyer Figures of 120 in consecutive runnings of the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct, that is something. When the same horse wins at Santa Anita twice, Aqueduct again, and Hollywood Park between the two Cigars, that is really something.

Congaree really is a throwback. For starters, he is a 5-year-old, and the connections are making plans for a 2004 campaign. There should be a special Eclipse Award given to owner Bob McNair for that alone.

Three Decembers ago, Congaree was a maiden with one career start, a sixth-place finish at Del Mar on Sept. 10, 2000. The horse did not make his first start as a 3-year-old until Feb. 28. He quickly won his maiden, an allowance race, and the Wood Memorial in the space of 45 days.

Congaree soundly beat Monarchos in the Wood. And one could make a case that Congaree, despite his third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, actually ran the best race. Remember that was the year when the pace was 22.25 seconds, 44.86, 1:09.25. The horses who were first, second, third and fourth early finished 13th, 14th, 16th and 11th.

Congaree was fifth early and actually took a daylight lead in the stretch before Monarchos roared by. Invisible Ink beat Congaree by a neck for second. For a horse making just his fifth career start, Congaree ran an amazing race.

Congaree ran great in the Preakness, finishing third behind stablemate Point Given. Congaree won the Swaps Stakes easily.

That 3-year-old campaign was the tip to what was to come later. This clearly was a horse who could stand a lot of tough racing.

Congaree was in and out last year until the Cigar Mile. There was even a try on the grass that did not work.

Since the 2002 Cigar, just about everything has worked. Even the horse's losses have been valiant. His sixth-place finish in the Met Mile was obviously a result of dueling on a wild pace and clearly an aberration.

His fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic was a winning effort. Left alone, Medaglia d'Oro or Congaree was sure to win the Classic. Together, they showed great courage and set it up nicely for Pleasantly Perfect.

One would be remiss not to point out that Jerry Bailey, after riding Congaree only in the Preakness, got reacquainted with the horse in the 2002 Cigar. Since then Bailey is a head away from being unbeaten on Congaree in six starts. In that time span, all other riders (and they would be great riders in Gary Stevens, Edgar Prado and Patrick Valenzuela) are 1 for 4.

Bob Baffert nearly won the Triple Crown with both Silver Charm and Real Quiet. He really should have won it with Point Given.

Still, Congaree has to be his best training job. Congaree went through horse racing's version of hell in his 3-year-old season. More than two years later, the horse holds form that has seen him earn Beyers of 115, 118, 116, 116, 116, 115, and 120 in 2003. No matter the distance or the track, Congaree fires.

There may be no award for Congaree this year. We here at Beyer Control do not have the power to bestow awards. But there are things we just know. We know that Congaree is in a category all his own.