Updated on 09/16/2011 8:56AM

Congaree vulnerable favorite in San Diego


DEL MAR, Calif. - There are no money-back guarantees when a former star attempts redemption on the racetrack. Congaree once might have crushed a field like the one he faces Sunday, but skeptical bettors will consider the front-runner vulnerable Sunday in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar.

Congaree emerged last year as one of the nation's top 3-year-olds by winning the Wood Memorial and Swaps Stakes, and also finishing third in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. An injury in August sidelined him for nine months, and cast doubt on his racing career. The questions linger.

A May 27 comeback victory in a Grade 3 at Lone Star began Congaree's 4-year-old campaign, but he folded to sixth in his most recent start June 15, a Grade 1 at Churchill Downs. "I think he sort of bounced; I babied him [between starts] and paid the price," Baffert said. "Hopefully, the real Congaree will show up" on Sunday.

Eight entered the 1 1/16-mile San Diego, including two sharp graded stakes winners in undeniably sharp form. The only question about Palmeiro and Bosque Redondo is this - are they good enough? Palmeiro has improved since being gelded in February; Bosque Redondo is a fresh horse ideally suited to the San Diego distance. Graded stakes winners Euchre and Grey Memo entered the San Diego, along with longshots Nates Colony, Investor's Dream, and Dig For It. To win, they must catch the favorite.

Baffert said Congaree will be adding blinkers. "You can't rate him," he said, "you just let him bounce away from there and see what happens. I think he's a really good horse. I feel pretty good. We'll see what happens. I haven't babied him at all."

A 5-for-10 son of Arazi with earnings of $1.2 million for owner-breeder Robert and Janice McNair's Stonerside Stable, Congaree will be ridden for the first time by David Flores. Notwithstanding sharp works and a front-running strategy, there remains doubt about whether Congaree can regain his ranking as one of the top horses in the country. The rigors of a Triple Crown campaign do take a toll, and Congaree would not be the first top-class 3-year-old to fall short in his attempt to become a top-class 4-year-old.

Beyond issues of form, Congaree faces a track profile that has not been particularly kind to speed - only one of the first 14 dirt routes this season at Del Mar was won by the pacesetter. Congaree will be rolling on the lead, but Palmeiro and Bosque Redondo will be in close pursuit. While Paco Gonzalez-trained Bosque Redondo's credentials are apparent - he has won 6 of 15 - the up-and-comer in the field is Palmeiro.

After Palmeiro lost three straight against allowance company, trainer John Sadler, and owners Jerry and Ann Moss, decided Palmeiro required gelding. "He had a tendency to lug in, and we just felt he wasn't giving his best. He was developing real thick; he was looking too much like a right tackle instead of a wide receiver," Sadler explained. Palmeiro was gelded following the Feb. 2 Strub, and soon began to change.

Palmeiro started to train better, and ran accordingly. Third in a Grade 3, he next scored a decisive two-other-than allowance win in May, then won a Grade 3 in June. Instead of lugging in, Palmeiro was drawing away. On Sunday, he needs to continue his improving pattern.

"He's trained sensational," Sadler said. "Now he's got to out and see if he can beat a top horse."

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