01/06/2003 1:00AM

Congaree is looking good - and, boy, do we need him


NEW YORK - Aside from the really big questions of 2002 - "How could something like the Breeders' Cup 'fix six' scandal happen?" and "What would have happened if War Emblem broke running when he went for the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes?" - this was one of the bigger mysteries in Thoroughbred racing. What happened to Congaree?

At this time last year, Congaree was still recovering from an injury sustained in the 2001 Jim Dandy at Saratoga. He was reportedly doing famously at a farm in South Carolina and was expected to be a serious member of the 2002 handicap division.

It didn't turn out that way. Not even close. But judging from his overwhelming victory in Saturday's San Pasqual Handicap at Santa Anita, it could be that Congaree was just a little late arriving.

The reason for the high expectations was the immense talent Congaree demonstrated even in an abbreviated 3-year-old campaign in 2001. He walloped Monarchos, winner of the Florida Derby and subsequently the Kentucky Derby, in the Wood Memorial, his first attempt in a stakes race, and was the easiest four-length winner you will ever see when he won the Swaps later on. But it was Congaree's performance in the Kentucky Derby that really separated him from the pack. Close to a suicidal early Derby pace of 22.25 seconds, 44.86, and 1:09.25, Congaree still had the lead in midstretch, after 1 1/8 miles. He eventually weakened to finish third. That he was the only horse involved in that early pace to be remotely close to the top flight at the wire made it one of the most impressive losing performances in the Derby in decades. Many people thought he ran every bit as well as Monarchos, a closer who benefited from a perfect set up.

That is why Congaree's 3-for-6 season last year was disappointing. His 2002 started well enough, with a front-running victory in the Lone Star Park Handicap over a track biased for closers, but he went south in a hurry. He was crushed as the favorite in the Stephen Foster, and though Street Cry ran out of his mind in that race, it was ugly the way Congaree caved in the final furlong. It wasn't any prettier seeing him blow a clear lead through Del Mar's short stretch in the San Diego Handicap, and even though he came back to win the Del Mar Breeders' Cup, neither the time of that race nor those Congaree struggled to beat were impressive.

Congaree lost yet another race as the favorite in a failed turf experiment in the Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile. Then, when Congaree seemed to recapture some of his brilliance with a very fast win in the Cigar Mile, his big score was tempered somewhat by the suspicion that it may have been enhanced by an affinity for the racing surface. The Cigar Mile is run over the main track at Aqueduct, the same surface on which Congaree was so impressive winning the Wood Memorial.

In the wake of the San Pasqual, Congaree is now 3 for 3 at Santa Anita, and maybe he is a horse for that course, too. If he is, this is a good year for it, since this year's Breeders' Cup will take place at Santa Anita during the Oak Tree meet. More likely than another horse-for-course win, however, is the probability that Congaree is now finally on his way. It's no coincidence he employed the same stalking-from-close-range running style on Saturday that he used in the Cigar Mile. This was the same style Congaree used in his younger days in the Wood Memorial and Derby, before he seemingly morphed into a less effective, need-the-lead type.

The handicap division can use a horse like Congaree. Gone are Street Cry, Left Bank, Mizzen Mast, and Swept Overboard, to mention a few. Usually, newly turned 4-year-olds help fill the handicap ranks, but it's a different right now. Several leading 3-year-olds of last year, such as War Emblem, Came Home, Buddha, and Sarava, have also retired, and it's an open to question how successfully others such as Repent, Proud Citizen, and Magic Weisner will return from injury and illness.

A young horse to watch

Filling the ranks, particularly the 3-year-old ranks, is an annual process at Gulfstream Park. Many graduates from Gulfstream's often loaded maiden and lower-level allowance races go on to fashion productive campaigns, and a few, like Monarchos a couple of years ago, go on to glory.

The first such notable 3-year-old surfaced Saturday, day two of the Gulfstream meet, in the form of Lion Tamer. A Todd Pletcher-trained colt by Travers and Whitney winner Will's Way, Lion Tamer won an allowance by a widening 7 1/2 lengths, even though he spotted his field a head start, to improve his record to two wins and a second from three starts. He completed the six furlongs, which figures to be well short of his best trip, in 1:10.22. Even though the speed of a track can change from race to race thanks to track maintenance and watering, that time compares well with the 1:09.95 seasoned older horses went in the Mr. Prospector Handicap later in the card.