12/01/2003 12:00AM

Congaree for sprint champion


NEW YORK - Now that Congaree has concluded his 5-year-old campaign with yet another sensational victory, in Saturday's Cigar Mile at Aqueduct - nearly equaling the 5 1/2-length win margin and matching the lofty 120 Beyer Speed Figure from his win in the 2002 Cigar Mile - the conversation can now shift to Congaree's merits as a candidate for champion sprinter.

It is easy to forget that Congaree is every bit a legitimate candidate for this year's sprint title. It seems like much of his time was spent attempting to stretch out to 1 1/4 miles, which he came within just one jump of successfully doing last March in the Santa Anita Handicap, and which he finally accomplished in July in the Hollywood Gold Cup.

When Congaree wasn't occupied with that, he was usually proving himself to be a world-class miler, which he did again on Saturday. Although milers and sprinters are close cousins, and even though mile races at Aqueduct, Belmont Park, Churchill Downs, and Arlington Park are one-turn affairs that are run much like sprints, most people acknowledge that there is still a marked difference. That's good, because if you want to classify one-turn mile races at Belmont as sprints, then you would have to do the same with 1 1/16-mile races, and I don't think anyone would be comfortable with that.

However, Congaree met the most basic requirement to be considered for the sprint championship when he won the Carter Handicap, a Grade 1, seven-furlong sprint, last April. This was a strong performance. Congaree was shortening up from the 10 furlongs of the Big Cap, which is no small obstacle. Still, he disputed the pace, opened up five in midstretch, and cruised to a 3 1/2-length score in strong time. More importantly, the thoroughly beaten runner-up was Aldebaran.

Aldebaran had previously won the Grade 1 San Carlos Handicap by five, and later won the Tom Fool and Forego handicaps. He also won the Metropolitan Mile (beating Congaree, who was the victim of questionable tactics in that race), but we've already established that mile races should have much less, if any, bearing in a discussion on sprinting. In any event, despite finishing sixth as the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Sprint while Congaree stretched out to 1 1/4 miles again and was a game fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Aldebaran remains the probable favorite for the sprint title on the basis of his overall record. This, despite the fact that Congaree walloped him the only time they met sprinting this year.

One cause for pause is that the Carter was run over a muddy track. I'm a firm believer that results on wet tracks should be viewed with a healthy degree of skepticism, but in this instance there is nothing that says Congaree moved up wildly in the mud, because he never has, or that Aldebaran was severely compromised by the surface. In fact, Aldebaran probably liked it, because two races later, he won the Met Mile in the slop.

But, there should be no reservation about Congaree being a legitimate candidate for the sprint championship off just one sprint race, because in recent years there is more of a precedent for this than you may think. In the last four years, the winners of six divisional championships had only one successful start in one pertinent divisional race - and one start in North America, period. They were Daylami, champion turf male in 1999; Kalanisi, champion turf male in 2000; Fantastic Light, champion turf male in 2001; Banks Hill, champion turf female in 2001; Johannesburg, champion 2-year-old male in 2001; and High Chaparral, champion turf male in 2002.

Granted, five of these six were turf champions, and there is a different set of criteria to fill between turf racing, which is more international than ever, and sprinting, which is the most American category of racing. Nevertheless, it has been established that one start, if it is good enough, can be enough to make a horse a champion, especially when there is no dominant figure in the division.

No Derby winners here

Although there are several talented and intriguing members of the 2-year-old male division, there are no dominant figures. None emerged from Saturday's Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct and Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs, and the winners don't look like horses who will emerge next year in distance races.

It's hard to take issue with the performance of Read the Footnotes in the Remsen. He rated kindly just off the lead and went on to win over 10 opponents as much the best to improve his record to 4 for 5. But, you will have to pardon me for being reluctant to get excited over the Derby prospects of a son of Smoke Glacken.

Jockey Shane Sellers let up late on The Cliff's Edge in the Kentucky Jockey Club, but The Cliff's Edge still had to work hard at 4-5 to best a modest opponent in Gran Prospect. Now, if you scrutinize The Cliff's Edge's record, you will find that his three efforts around two turns don't measure up in quality to his decisive scores in his two races around one turn.