07/14/2001 12:00AM

Congaree has little to fear


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Congaree has blossomed into a star in the four months since he last started in California.

When he left in early April, he was the winner of an allowance race, and a Triple Crown prospect. When he starts in Sunday's $500,000 Swaps Stakes over 1 1/8 miles, Congaree will be a short-priced favorite to add to his reputation as one of the nation's top 3-year-olds.

Through the spring, Congaree won the Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct and was third in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. While he was overshadowed during the Triple Crown by stablemate Point Given, who won the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes, Congaree will be the focus Sunday for trainer Bob Baffert, who is seeking his second consecutive winner in the Swaps.

Last year, Baffert won the Swaps with Captain Steve, who beat Tiznow, the 2000 Horse of the Year. Captain Steve paid $3.80. Such a payoff may seem generous with Congaree.

"The way he's training and the horse I think he is, we expect him to win," Baffert said. "He should win."

Conagree will be ridden for the first time by Gary Stevens. Congaree will wear blinkers, which he wore in the Wood and the Derby, but not in the Preakness.

Baffert said he expects Congaree to lead, which he has never done in six starts. In his three wins, Congaree stalked the pace and took over on the backstretch. He led in early stretch of the Kentucky Derby, but finished 4 3/4 lengths behind Monarchos.

"He doesn't want to stalk," Baffert said. "We'll let him roll. I'm not worried about someone going with him, I'm worried about something coming late."

Congaree's biggest threats are the first three from the Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap - Until Sundown, Top Hit, and Bayou the Moon. Jamaican Rum and Hoovergetthekeys will be longshots.

Until Sundown may pressure Congaree early, but is more likely to stalk. Bayou the Moon will be mid-pack, hoping to improve off a disappointing third in the Affirmed.

"I hope he had a bad day because he's done well since," trainer Richard Mandella said.

Of the closers, Top Hit could run well, having lost by a neck to Until Sundown in the Affirmed.

"He's already run real competitively with the other horses, but Congaree is a different horse," trainer Kory Owens said.