01/31/2003 12:00AM

Congaree looks tough

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Michael J. Marten
Congaree will be favored in the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap on Sunday at Santa Anita.

ARCADIA, Calif. - Congaree has marched to the head of the handicap division by posting consecutive stakes victories for the first time in his career, but right now the only race on his agenda is the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap on Sunday at Santa Anita.

"We're not making any long-range plans with this horse," trainer Bob Baffert said. "Last year, we had all these plans, and nothing worked out. We're going to let the horse dictate what we do." On Sunday, that will be racing 1 1/8 miles as the 123-pound highweight in the San Antonio, the traditional prep for the Santa Anita Handicap on March 1.

Six older horses entered the $250,000 San Antonio, including Milwaukee Brew, whose form tailed off after winning the Santa Anita Handicap and Californian at Hollywood Park last spring, and comebacker Pleasantly Perfect, winner of the Grade 2 Goodwood last fall. Piensa Sonando, winner of the Grade 3 Native Diver, also entered, along with Fleetstreet Dancer, runner-up in the Native Diver and the only pace threat for Congaree. Cottage completes the field, in which Congaree will be heavily favored.

Following runaway wins in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile in November and Grade 2 San Pasqual on Jan. 4, Congaree emerged as the nation's top handicap horse.

For a while last year, there was a question if Congaree would ever return to form. "Physically, he's a totally different horse now," Baffert said. "He's filled out over his whole body. He's just a big, massive horse now."

Congaree has won eight races and $1.7 million from 15 starts, and breaks from post 1 on Sunday. Jerry Bailey rides the 5-year-old Congaree, who is owned by Stonerside Farm.

To win, Congaree must catch longshot Fleetstreet Dancer. Although Fleetstreet Dancer, a 5-year-old, has raced in only one graded stakes, he has improved greatly since being gelded before a claiming race win on Oct. 9. Trainer Doug O'Neill claimed Fleetstreet Dancer for $40,000 from that race.

"We loved his pedigree, and he's such a big, good-looking horse," O'Neill said. "We figured in a worst-case scenario, he could win for $25,000." Instead, O'Neill and owners Lee and Ty Leatherman found themselves with a sharp allowance horse who missed by only a head at 19-1 in the Native Diver. Fleetsteet Dancer was considered for a race in Texas, but instead was pointed for the San Antonio.

"He's doing fantastic, and this horse actually can show speed," O'Neill said. Fleetstreet Dancer carries 11 pounds less than Congaree (123 to 112). Nevertheless, O'Neill said, "We realize is probably impossible to beat Congaree."

Longshot bettors will disagree, and consider Fleetstreet Dancer a legitimate threat to race gate to wire under Tyler Baze.

The San Antonio came up with only two front-runners - Fleetstreet Dancer and Congaree. Barring an unexpected duel, every late-runner in the field will be compromised. That includes Pleasantly Perfect, Milwaukee Brew, and Piensa Sonando.

Pleasantly Perfect burst onto the stakes scene in October with a devastating win in the Grade 2 Goodwood Handicap. Unfortunately, he bled in that race and under Illinois racing rules was barred from the Breeders' Cup Classic at Arlington. Trainer Richard Mandella put him away to point for a 2003 campaign. The San Antonio is his first start in nearly four months.

"I think he's ready to run a big race," Mandella said. Pleasantly Perfect has raced only nine times, winning four. "We haven't raced him so much that we know his patterns. But training him, he acts better than ever."

Alex Solis rides Pleasantly Perfect, owned by Diamond A Racing Corporation. Milwaukee Brew is making his first start since a third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic; Piensa Sonando finished fourth in the San Paqual last time; Cottage finished eighth in the San Pasqual.

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