11/26/2003 12:00AM

Congaree king of the hill in Big Apple


OZONE PARK, N.Y. - He was bred and raised in the lush bluegrass of Kentucky. He is owned by a wealthy Texan and trained by a cool Californian. But Congaree is a New Yorker at heart.

And not a hoity-toity New Yorker, the kind who surfaces only during the spring and summer at beautiful Belmont Park or historic Saratoga. No, Congaree is a blue-collar New Yorker. One who braves the whipping winds off Jamaica Bay and ignores the deafening roars of 747's whizzing overhead en route to nearby John F. Kennedy Airport to excel at aesthetically challenged Aqueduct.

Congaree is perfect at Aqueduct, having won this track's three most prestigious events - the Wood Memorial, Cigar Mile, and Carter Handicap. The green and white silks of owner Bob McNair's Stonerside Stable are encased three times in the Aqueduct paddock, where the silks of the last five winners of the Carter, Wood, Cigar, and Remsen decorate the walls.

Saturday, before the true-blue fans of New York racing, Congaree will seek to remain the king of Queens when he bids for a repeat in the $350,000 Cigar Mile, the last Grade 1 of the year run in New York.

Congaree, trained by Bob Baffert, first came to New York as a 3-year-old in the spring of 2001 to run in the Wood Memorial. Congaree had run only three times and was facing the Florida Derby winner, Monarchos. After stalking the speed of the sprinter Richly Blended, Congaree took control around the turn and romped home by 2 3/4 lengths.

Three weeks later, Congaree would finish third behind Monarchos in the Derby. If there ever was such a thing as a great third, Congaree's Derby was it. In what turned out to be the second-fastest Derby ever run, Congaree raced close to a hot pace and made the lead at the quarter pole before giving way grudgingly in the stretch. He was just caught on the wire by longshot Invisible Ink for second.

That summer, Congaree raced at Saratoga, going off the 2-5 favorite in the Jim Dandy. Congaree finished third but emerged from the race with a chipped bone in his knee.

Congaree didn't run again in New York until the fall of 2002. Following a failed turf experiment in the Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile, Congaree ran what may have been his best race, romping to a 5 1/4-length victory in the Cigar Mile.

Tonja Terranova, who oversees Congaree when he ships to New York, called Congaree's 2002 Cigar Mile "electrifying."

Terranova said that "when Bob shipped him in, he said he was going to win. He had no doubts."

After spending the winter in splendid Southern California, Congaree returned to New York in April where he caught a wet track and a razor-sharp Aldebaran in the Grade 1 Carter. He handled both with ease, skipping his way to a 3 1/2-length victory in the Carter.

"He's a different horse than Aldebaran," Baffert said. "Aldebaran's a late-running sprinter-miler type, whereas Congaree has more speed and can put it to them. He's got a bigger engine."

The prestigious Metropolitan Handicap at one mile at Belmont seemed a natural fit for Congaree. But the track came up sloppy that day and Congaree raced too close to the pace. He finished sixth as the 4-5 favorite.

"I shouldn't have run him at Belmont," Baffert said. "It was a bad move on my part. He wasn't doing that good, but I didn't want to pass it up. It rained, and it was a total disaster."

After running a respectable fourth in the 10-furlong Breeders' Cup Classic, Congaree is back for more New York glory. A win in the Cigar Mile would make him the first repeat winner of the race and could mean he would run again next year.

"If he runs an outstanding race, wins, or if he were to get beat with an excuse, then we would strongly consider running him next year as long as he's happy and sound," said John Adger, the racing manager for Stonerside Stable. "I think the McNairs really enjoy seeing him run."

According to Adger, if Congaree remains in training in 2004 he would be considered for the Dubai World Cup and a possible second try at the Metropolitan Handicap. His ultimate goal would be the Breeders' Cup Classic at Lone Star Park, where McNair - who also owns the NFL's Houston Texans - could show him off to the home crowd.

But, if Congaree does run at 6, the year wouldn't be complete without at least one trip to Aqueduct.