02/27/2003 12:00AM

A Congaree runs through it


ARCADIA, Calif. - At the end of the 2002 season, Robert McNair took a hard look at his two favorite sports franchises and tried to foresee what the future held.

One of them sported a record of four wins and eight losses and had nowhere to go but up, even though it looked like a pretty long climb. The other one had a more promising record of seven wins and seven losses, with efforts of true brilliance intermingled with sobering disappointments.

Now that 2003 has dawned, McNair's Houston Texans (4-12) won't be in action again until later this summer, when they commence their second season as the fledgling franchise of the NFL.

That leaves Congaree to carry the ball, and so far, he is leading the league. After wins this year in the San Pasqual and San Antonio handicaps, Congaree finally has turned into the horse that McNair dreamed of when the colt hit the ground at his Stonerside Farm in Kentucky on April 20, 1998.

On Saturday, Congaree will give Robert and Janice McNair their first starter in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap. They have had their share of thrills owning part of such runners as Touch Gold, Strodes Creek, and Coronado's Quest. But Congaree is a homegrown product, by Arazi out of the Mari's Book mare Mari's Sheba, and that makes him special.

"This was a big, nice-looking foal," McNair said from his home in Houston, where he chairs The McNair Group. "But he had a lot of problems. When he was born, he was so big he had three ribs broken. I think he weighed about 150 pounds. We kept him in the stall for two months because we were afraid he was going to puncture a lung.

"Then, when he was about six months old, he got pneumonia," McNair went on. "After that, when he first started training, he had a chip on a knee we had to have removed. So he's had a lot of adversity to overcome."

Not to mention an attitude that did not include compromise. As a young horse Congaree was a speed-burning dynamo, fighting jockeys to get his way.

His pace-pressing performance in the 2001 Kentucky Derby - he still led inside the eighth pole and held on for third to Monarchos - remains one of the most impressive losing efforts in the history of the race.

"He ran so hard that day I think he left it all on the track," McNair said. "It took him probably over a year to recover from that. That can happen with a football player, especially if they've had an injury. You can push them too hard, and they might not get enough time."

With Congaree finally in a groove this winter, McNair was not inclined to get experimental. Even though his trainer, Bob Baffert, knows how to win a Dubai World Cup, a trip to the Middle East for the $6 million race was ruled out.

"In the first place, it's very uncertain politically over there," McNair said. "We also think that the Santa Anita Handicap is more prestigious from a tradition standpoint, even though the purse is not as great. I think the long trip over there and back takes something out of horses, and we want to run in the Met Mile."

The Metropolitan Handicap will be run at Belmont on May 26, less than two months after Congaree would have returned from Dubai.

"I can't think of anything more satisfying than to win at a mile and a quarter in the Santa Anita Handicap and then win at a mile in two of the best races in the country," McNair added. "It would be quite an accomplishment. Not many horses have done that."

In fact, it has never been done. At least not in the same season.

Nodouble won the 1969 Santa Anita Handicap and the 1970 Met Mile. Criminal Type finished second in the 1990 Santa Anita Handicap then won the Met, while Broad Brush won the Handicap in 1987 but finished third in the Mile. The only others to hit the board in both races the same year were First Fiddle in 1946 and Joe Jones in 1955.

So much for history. Let's turn to geography. Congaree was named for a river that runs through Robert McNair's life like the blood in his North Carolina veins.

French Broad River flows out of the Bald Mountains of western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, past Asheville and Forest City, and southeast into South Carolina, where it ends up in the heart of Columbia, in confluence with the Saluda and the Congaree.

McNair was born and raised in Forest City and educated at the University of South Carolina, which is located in Columbia. That is where he met Janice, who was attending Columbia College.

"The Congaree River flows right between the University of South Carolina and Columbia College," McNair said. "Then it ultimately goes down to Charleston and empties into the Atlantic Ocean, near where we have a home in Kiawah. So I have connections with that river at the beginning, the midpoint, and the end, with significant events occurring in my life.

"The Congaree is a big, wide, strong river," McNair added. "And it runs fast."