05/26/2002 11:00PM

Congaree shows he belongs with best


GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - The handicap division has a new player in Congaree, who won his comeback from a 10-month layoff wire-to-wire in the Grade 3, $300,000 Lone Star Park Handicap.

The 1 1/16-mile race was the colt's first since finishing third in the Grade 1 Jim Dandy last August, and was one of seven stakes worth $1 million at Lone Star Park on Monday.

Congaree stumbled at little at the break in the Lone Star Park Handicap, but quickly took command and led the field through an opening 46.52 seconds. He turned back bids by several of his rivals on the final turn, then kept 48-1 longshot Prince Iroquios at bay through the stretch to win by two lengths. It was another 1 3/4 lengths back in third to Mercenary.

Congaree covered the distance over a fast track in 1:42.96 and returned $3.60 as the favorite.

"To set the pace and repulse a challenge like that is a very credible effort," said Pat Day, who rode Congaree for trainer Bob Baffert.

Baffert was also impressed with the colt's race. "This horse won on his own," said Baffert. "I had him fit to win at a mile and that last sixteenth of a mile was all heart."

Congaree has won five of nine starts for Stonerside Stable, and earned $180,000 for the win, which improved his bankroll to $1,243,400.

Last year at 3, Congaree won the Grade 1 Swaps and Grade 2 Wood Memorial and finished third in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. He is being pointed for the Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs.

On the undercard, Regiment ($4.40) remained perfect on turf, winning the $200,000 Diamond "A" USA Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths over Diamond Hope. It was 1 1/4 lengths back to Kamolia in third.

Legislator, the even-money favorite on the strength of his recent win in the Grade 3 Crown Royal American Turf, was pulled up in the first turn of the 1 1/16-mile turf race for 3-year-olds with an injury to his right front leg.

Regiment stalked pacesetter Diamond Hope through fractions of 49.22 seconds for the half-mile and 1:13.98 for six furlongs, then drew even with the leader at the quarter pole. He went on to cover the distance over firm turf in 1:44.75 under David Flores.

Regiment gave his trainer, Bob Baffert, a fourth win in the United States from six starts. The colt has won his last four races, three of which have been on turf, and earned $120,000 for Monday's win, which improved his record to four wins in six starts and earnings of $216,420.

Baffert has also won in the USA with Purely Cozzene, Commitisize, and Anet. Regiment races for The Thoroughbred Corp.

Fast turf sprint

Nuclear Debate ($7.40) came close to setting a course record for five furlongs on turf when he ran down Joyful Tune in the stretch to win the $100,000 Beck Auto Group by a length in 55.74 seconds. The record is 55.60 seconds set by Icy Morn in 1997.

Joyful Tune set fractions of 21.81 seconds for the opening quarter and 44.07 for the half before drifting out in the later stages and being overtaken by Nuclear Debate.

It was 2 3/4 lengths to Boots On Sunday back in third.

"I sat chilly behind the speed, and when it was time to go, I knew he had a great turn of foot," said Flores, who rode Nuclear Debate for owner Herrick Racing and trainer Darrell Vienna.

Light rains fell before the Beck Auto, which went as the fifth race and the second stakes on the card.

Closers sweep Texas-bred sprints

In the first stakes on the program, favorite Coastalota ($6) rolled past the leaders in the stretch to win the $50,000 JEH Stallion Station Stakes for Texas-bred fillies and mares by a length over Suzie Sunshine. It was a neck back in third to Princess Liza.

"When I called on her, she gave me everything," said Robby Albarado, who rode Coastalota for owner Hubert Southard and trainer Randy Mayfield.

Coastalota ran the 6 1/2 furlongs over a fast track in 1:18.99.

In the other race on the card for statebreds, St. Martin's Cloak ($20.60) rallied from a few lengths off the pace to win the $50,000 Carter McGregor, Jr., by 1 1/4 lengths over R.B. Spirit. It was another 1 1/4 lengths back in third to Kentucky Bay.

St. Martin's Cloak ran the six furlongs over a fast track in 1:10.55. Jockey Gerard Melancon rode the winner for owner-trainer Jim Hudson, who also won the Carter McGregor in 1997 with Daggett's Crossing.