02/26/2003 12:00AM

Congaree: A story of then and now

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It is quite possible that without 93 seconds of brilliance at Aqueduct last November, Congaree would have had a different life this winter.

When he entered the gate for the Grade 1 Cigar Mile on Nov. 30, Congaree's career was in a rut. A loss would likely have led to retirement and a career at stud, a victory would justify leaving him in training.

Even his most dedicated backers could not have expected the performance that Congaree showed, a victory by 5 1/2 lengths.

Three months later, Congaree remains in the best form of his career. On Saturday, he starts in the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, where he will attempt to win his fourth consecutive graded stakes.

"We took a shot in the Cigar Mile and the rest is history," said John Adger, the racing manager for Stonerside Stable, which owns Congaree.

Congaree's history is not yet complete.

He will be a heavy favorite in the Big Cap, attempting to win for the first time over 1 1/4 miles. Six months ago, that role seemed impossible for the 5-year-old Congaree.

After an outstanding 3-year-old season that included wins in the Wood Memorial and Swaps Stakes and a third in the Kentucky Derby, Congaree was expected to be a handicap star in 2002. His 3-year-old campaign was interrupted by a knee injury that was discovered after a third-place finish in the Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga in August 2001.

Congaree opened his 4-year-old campaign with a victory in the Lone Star Park Handicap last May, but then failed as the favorite in stakes at Churchill Downs and Del Mar.

"We always thought Congaree had tremendous ability and tremendous talent," Adger said. "But after he ran a couple of races that had us shaking our heads, we thought maybe the fact he did injure himself in the Jim Dandy was taking its toll."

Congaree rebounded to win the Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap over a mile last September. Then came the low point. Congaree made his turf debut in the Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile on Oct. 5, a race designed as a prep for the Breeders' Cup Mile at Arlington Park.

Sent off as the 4-5 favorite in the Oak Tree Mile, Congaree led by 3 1/2 lengths early, but was challenged in midstretch and faded to seventh. The loss forced owners Robert and Janice McNair to question the colt's future as a racehorse.

"We did have several people call us about standing him at stud," Adger said. "We had several farms, some in Kentucky, and others that were interested. The first and foremost thing was to do right by the horse. If he wasn't right, we would have retired him. We X-rayed him and went over the knee."

During late October, Congaree remained in training with Bob Baffert at Santa Anita. With the Breeders' Cup dominating the news, Congaree attracted little attention, but Baffert was pleased with his training.

"Bob told us, 'Just throw the race out. I'll try to get him ready for the Cigar Mile,' " Adger recalled.

In the Cigar Mile, Congaree was the 9-2 fourth betting choice in a field that included Crafty C.T., the third-place finisher in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, and Red Bullet, the 2000 Preakness winner who was sent off as the favorite.

Ridden for the first time by Jerry Bailey, Congaree stalked the leaders for the first half-mile, challenged for the lead on the final turn, and drew off for an eye-catching win.

Five weeks later, Congaree confirmed his form with a six-length win in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap over 1 1/16 miles. In that race, he showed a new dimension. Unlike his stakes wins at 3 and 4, Congaree stalked the pace in fourth place behind a half-mile fraction in a pedestrian 47.71 seconds, looped the field, and ran off under Bailey.

"The race that really impressed me was the San Pasqual," Adger said. "He tracked a slow pace. He can run backward faster than they ran a half-mile. When they kicked it in, he really finished."

Congaree's status was further enhanced with a victory by 2 1/4 lengths in the San Antonio Handicap on Feb. 2 over 1 1/8 miles. His erratic form of last summer and fall was behind him.

"I think he was going through a mid-life crisis," Baffert said. "He's changed."

Baffert cites mental and physical maturity and the presence of Bailey as factors that contributed to Congaree's improvement.

"The horse needs to be finessed," Baffert said. "He's really filled out and he's learned to relax. That's the key."

Congaree's performance over 1 1/4 miles will determine the direction of his current campaign. One race being considered for him is the Met Mile at Belmont Park in May, arguably the nation's most important dirt race at a mile.

"This will give us a good measuring stick at a mile and a quarter," Adger said. "As long as he's sound, we're hopeful he can get through this year and we'd like to race him next year.

"I think he's really filled into his frame. He's an awesome-looking animal. He's like a pet. He's a wonderful horse. He's easy to be around, and not like a colt or horses that are pretty rough.

"We've had a lot of good racehorses, but he's the first one of championship caliber that has come up as a homebred from the farm."