02/27/2003 12:00AM

Congaree vulnerable to a dirt-race novice

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ARCADIA, Calif. - You want to make a big, fat bet on Congaree. Because you are thinking, wouldn't it be swell if the best horse in the Santa Anita Handicap simply went out there and tore his rivals to shreds?

It would be good, clean fun. And without Medaglia d'Oro in the field, who stands in Congaree's way?

Sure, late-runner Pleasantly Perfect has a chance. But the Big Cap came up without any speed. This compromises Pleasantly Perfect. You are sure Pleasantly Perfect is a genuine 1 1/4-mile horse, but what difference does it make with no pace to run at?

Pleasantly Perfect would have had a square shot with a front-runner in the field. Medaglia d'Oro would have set his typically fast fractions, slowed down coming home like always, and set it up for the closers. But without the speedball, Pleasantly Perfect must chase a fresh horse - presser Congaree - into the lane.

A handicapper might look at the raw fractions Trompolino set last time and believe he provides sufficient pace. Trompolino is not as fast as he looks, however. The day he won a four-horse, 1 1/8-mile allowance by nine lengths - going 46.12 seconds and 1:10.04 - the "wet-fast" track was greased lightning. One race later, 3-year-old fillies racing a mile went 45.72 and 1:10.30. The track was three-fifths faster than par, maybe more.

So now you are back at square one - looking at a 1 1/4-mile race with no speed. Milwaukee Brew fits the same unfortunate description as Pleasantly Perfect - a one-run closer who specializes at 10 furlongs. After all, Milwaukee Brew won the Big Cap last year. But it was under entirely different circumstances. Last year's blistering pace - 45.06 seconds and 1:09.55 - set it up for Milwaukee Brew's closing kick.

Try to find a horse in this year's Big Cap that can run as fast early as Western Pride did last year. There is none. After winning last year, Milwaukee Brew raced in four more 1 1/4-mile races. His best finish - third, three times. Milwaukee Brew is what he is - a pick-up-the-pieces stretch-runner whose chances went out the window when speedball Medaglia d'Oro was pulled from the race.

Congaree is looking better all the time.

Kudos is a good horse, but how can he possibly be fit enough? He has not raced since Jan. 4, and that was his first start since April, and rain compromised his training schedule since the comeback two months ago. Kudos had a fast work last week, but so what? Good horses are supposed to work fast. Kudos may run well Saturday, but his next race (the Oaklawn Handicap again?) should be even better.

Piensa Sonando will run all day, though he did not finish within shouting range of Congaree in either start this meet. In the San Pasqual and San Antonio handicaps, tepid fractions allowed Congaree to cruise and win, while Piensa Sonando - yet another closer - struggled and finished a distant fourth.

It is tough to build a legitimate case for Piensa Sonando, except for odds. He's 20-1 on the morning line. Piensa Sonando may not be good enough to win the Big Cap, but he was fast enough in October to win at a mile, and this time he might get the jump on the other closers. If Piensa Sonando's odds were similar to the 3-1 Pleasantly Perfect or 7-2 Milwaukee Brew, he would merit no further discussion. But at 20-1, Piensa Sonando cannot be entirely discounted.

There remains legitimate doubt whether Congaree is a true 1 1/4-mile horse. He was not believed to be a stayer last fall, and three straight victories do not satisfy the distance issue. Congaree's blistering Cigar Mile was around one turn, and in both starts this meet Congaree benefited from a walking pace.

Congaree may or may not be a genuine 1 1/4-mile horse, but under the likely scenario Saturday, it may not matter. The race is void of speed. It simply has to unfold at a slow pace. Congaree figures for the same easy trip as his last two starts at shorter distances - pressing modest fractions.

To win the Big Cap, Congaree need only cut loose with one of his 23-second-and-change quarter-mile times to break it open on the far turn. None of Congaree's six rivals possesses his quickness.

None perhaps, except one.

Barring incident, the Big Cap figures to unfold like a turf race - slow early and fast late.

And if the race is run like a turf race, you now must consider a longshot turf horse as a legitimate contender.

That horse is Sligo Bay. A Grade 1 winner on turf, Sligo Bay has had sights set on the Big Cap for weeks. It will be his first try on dirt.

He won the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup in November by pressing a slow pace and kicking home. A similar scenario may play out Saturday. Sligo Bay has worked well on the Santa Anita main track, and may have just enough tactical speed to stay within striking range of tepid fractions.

Sligo Bay probably is not good enough to defeat Congaree in a dirt race at 1 1/4 miles. But you are not entirely sure.

Sligo Bay is 15-1; Congaree is 4-5.

You want to make a big, fat bet on the Big Cap. But now you are thinking, what if the best horse - Congaree - cannot stay 1 1/4 miles? If he cannot, wouldn't it be swell if your money was on a 15-1 longshot such as Sligo Bay?

It would be good, clean fun.