04/28/2004 11:00PM

Congaree sprinting again


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Bob McNair got one of his many thrills in racing when Congaree, his Stonerside Stable homebred, took command in the stretch run of the 2001 Kentucky Derby. Joy turned to disappointment, however, when Monarchos charged past to win and Invisible Ink nipped Congaree for second. The ensuing three years have helped to ease that bittersweet memory.

has gone on to become one of the richest and most durable handicap horses of his era, having won 12 of his 24 career starts while accumulating more than $3.25 million in earnings. Most of those races have come around two turns, but Congaree won the seven-furlong Carter last year and trainer Bob Baffert has long maintained that Congaree can be highly effective at sprint distances.

A perfect opportunity to reaffirm that belief arises Saturday, when Congaree will be heavily favored in the 70th running of the seven-furlong Churchill Downs Handicap. Baffert had planned to prep Congaree three weeks before in the Commonwealth Breeders' Cup, but after Congaree collicked, Baffert had little choice but to skip the race and train Congaree up to the Churchill Downs 'Cap, a Grade 2, $200,000 race.

"The colic wasn't a big deal, but it happened at the wrong time," said Baffert. "He got over it real quick and went right back to training super."

Congaree, with Jerry Bailey to ride, will break from post 6 in a field of eight older horses. Among the others, Publication, a late-striding California invader, probably rates the best upset chance. Trained by Vladimir Cerin, Publication has recorded triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures in each of his last five races.

The rest of the field is Speightstown, Private Horde, Key Deputy, New York Hero, McCann's Mojave, and Saint Waki.

The Churchill Downs 'Cap, the fifth of 12 races here Saturday, is the first of six stakes on a spectacular Derby Day program.