09/08/2003 11:00PM

For Congaree, timing is right

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Congaree, winning the Hollywood Gold Cup July 13 in his last start, is fresh for Saturday's Kentucky Cup Classic, with his ultimate goal the BC Classic.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Bob Baffert tends to shake his head in wonder at Congaree. While Baffert has trained a litany of sensational racehorses in recent years, not many have caught his fancy the way Congaree has.

So it is little wonder that Baffert is looking forward to Saturday, when he will saddle Congaree for the 10th running of the Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky. Baffert is hoping the Kentucky Cup not only will allow Congaree a chance to put on another dazzling performance and give the trainer his fourth win in the Classic, but also will provide an ideal foundation toward the ultimate goal, the Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 25 at Santa Anita.

"I really wanted to run him in the Goodwood," said Baffert, referring to the Oct. 4 Goodwood Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita. "But I thought it was maybe a week too close to the Breeders' Cup, so we settled on the Turfway race. That's fine. We've done pretty good there before."

Several of Baffert's all-time favorite horses have become parts of Kentucky Cup lore. Silver Charm, his 1997 Kentucky Derby winner, dead-heated for win with Wild Rush in an epic battle in the 1998 Classic. Captain Steve won the 2000 Classic six months before capturing the Dubai World Cup. Point Given first stamped himself as a potential superstar when he overcame a poor start to easily win the 2000 Juvenile. And Vindication used a spectacular run to win the Juvenile last year en route to a Breeders' Cup victory and a divisional championship.

Baffert also won the 1997 Classic with Semoran.

Next up is Congaree, the 5-year-old horse who has won 11 of 20 starts and more than $2.7 million for the Stonerside Stable of Bob and Janice McNair. Even before the colt made his first start at 2, Congaree was regarded by Baffert as a special horse.

"Bob always has been very high on him," said John Adger, who manages Stonerside for the McNairs.

Baffert notes that Congaree has a rare combination of speed, talent, and class. While admitting that the 1 1/4 miles of the Breeders' Cup Classic is at Congaree's limit, Baffert nevertheless refuses to concede that Congaree, on his best day, is incapable of beating the best in the world at that demanding distance.

Baffert has been pointing Congaree to the Breeders' Cup Classic for months. After winning the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Gold Cup in his most recent start July 13, Congaree was given a break with the intent of having him ready for a final push toward the Breeders' Cup, Baffert said. The 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Cup Classic, run six weeks before the 1 1/4-mile BC Classic, is a crucial link between the two California races.

"This race should give me plenty of opportunity to take him home and freshen him up, get him really sharp for the Breeders' Cup," Baffert said.

Besides the timing and distance of the race, Adger said the Kentucky Cup also allows Congaree to avoid facing the two other top handicap horses in training: Mineshaft, winner of last Saturday's Woodward, and Candy Ride, who won the Pacific Classic at Del Mar Aug. 24. The prevailing logic is: Why run your monster against another monster when you don't absolutely have to?

"There was certainly a thought to that," Adger said. "We could've run in the Del Mar race, but we're glad we didn't. We're happy with how we've mapped this out."

Until late last week, it appeared that the Grade 2, $350,000 KC Classic would be little more than a walkover for Congaree and jockey Edgar Prado, but then trainer Murray Johnson decided to run Perfect Drift, the gelding who defeated Mineshaft in June in the Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs. Unlike Congaree, Perfect Drift definitely will not run in the BC Classic.

"We've already beaten one of the big boys this year, and now we're going against another one," Johnson said. "We're trying to pick them off one by one instead of trying to beat them all in California."

"We're actually glad that Perfect Drift is in there," said Adger, acknowledging that a too-easy prep would not serve a rightful purpose toward the Breeders' Cup. "Perfect Drift is a very good horse. We're certainly not taking him lightly, I can assure you of that. We saw what he did against Mineshaft."

So the stage is set for what should be not only a timely prep for the Breeders' Cup for Congaree, but a competitive one, too. While willing to give all the respect that is due Perfect Drift, the Congaree camp is approaching the Kentucky Cup with the confidence that their horse tends to inspire - the kind of confidence that would make anyone shake his head in wonder.