09/24/2003 11:00PM

Congaree works bullet half-mile

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Congaree may only have finished second in the Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park earlier this month, but trainer Bob Baffert is certain that his star older horse will be ready for a top effort in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Oct. 25.

Thursday, Congaree, 5, had his first workout since his one-length loss to Perfect Drift in the Kentucky Cup Classic, breezing a half-mile in 45.80 seconds. The time was the fastest of 29 recorded workouts at the distance.

"He's ready," Baffert said. "He was pretty fresh. He went pretty strong."

Owned by Stonerside Stable, Congaree has something of a home- track advantage in the Breeders' Cup. He is based at Santa Anita for most of the year and has won 4 of 5 starts at the track. Earlier this season, Congaree won the San Pasqual and San Antonio handicaps and finished second, a head behind Milwaukee Brew, in the Santa Anita Handicap at 1 1/4 miles.

The Breeders' Cup Classic is run at 1 1/4 miles. In July, Congaree won the Hollywood Gold Cup at that distance.

The loss in the Kentucky Cup Classic has not affected Baffert's confidence.

"I think he's the best horse in the country," Baffert said. "I'll have a chance to prove it."

Irish Warrior faces Hirsch test

In about two minutes on Sunday, trainer Wally Dollase and his three partners who share ownership of Irish Warrior will know whether the horse is worthy of a start in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf on Oct. 25.

Irish Warrior, winner of the Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap on Aug. 30, returns in the $250,000 Clement Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship at 1 1/4 miles on turf.

One of four stakes races on Sunday's opening day program of the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting, the Grade 1 Hirsch will not have a large field, but can provide an indication of where Irish Warrior fits on a national level.

The heavy favorite will be Storming Home, a two-time stakes winner at Hollywood Park who finished first in the Arlington Million but was disqualified and placed fourth for causing interference in the final strides.

Irish Warrior won his first stakes race in the Del Mar Handicap at 1 3/8 miles on turf, rallying from off the pace to catch Continental Red in the final strides. The Hirsch will be Irish Warrior's first start at the Grade 1 level.

"It's time to grab those guys and see how tough we are," Dollase said. "He's not imposing as an individual. He's a tryer."

Irish Warrior and Storming Home will face a small field expected to include Continuously, Johar, and Mont Saint Michel.

Short fields, expected short prices

None of Sunday's four stakes races will have large fields and each will have a heavy favorite. The richest race of the day is the $500,000 Yellow Ribbon Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/4 miles. Tates Creek, winner of the Gamely Breeders' Cup and San Gorgonio handicaps this year, will be favored against Crazy Ensign, Magic Mission, Musical Chimes, and Red Rioja. Cassis, fourth in the Del Mar Oaks, is a possibility.

The $300,000 Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles is led by Azeri, the reigning Horse of the Year who is seeking her 12th consecutive win. Adoration, Elloluv, Got Koko, Tropical Blossom, and Royally Chosen will attempt to play the role of spoiler.

Azeri has not lost since finishing second to Summer Colony in the La Canada Stakes on this track in February 2002.

Halfbridled is a standout in the $250,000 Oak Leaf Stakes for 2-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles. Unbeaten in two starts, Halfbridled won the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante at seven furlongs on Aug. 30.

She faces Daddy's Princess, Lovely Rafaela, Renaissance Lady, Shadow of Mine, and Tarlow.

Baffert passes Oak Leaf, thinks BC

Baffert has won five of the last six runnings of the Oak Leaf Stakes, but will not have a starter this year.

He has two prospects for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies - Victory U. S. A. and Class Above. Victory U. S. A., third in the Del Mar Debutante, is bound for the Frizette Stakes at Belmont Park on Oct. 4. Class Above, a 16-length winner of the Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies on Sept. 13, will be trained up to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

Thursday, Class Above breezed five furlongs in 59.40 seconds. She started three lengths behind a stablemate, drew even on the turn, and pulled away to reach the finish two lengths in front. Baffert timed her in 46 seconds for a half-mile.

"She's awesome," Baffert said.

Despite his enthusiasm, Baffert is not thrilled with the prospect of facing Halfbridled.

"We've got to run against that beast," he said. "It won't be a gimme for Halfbridled if this one is sharp. And don't count out Victory U. S. A."

'Gentleman' just fine after miscue

Yankee Gentleman, a hopeful for the Breeders' Cup Sprint who was eased during a workout on Wednesday, showed no signs of physical problems on Thursday. He was scheduled to resume exercising on Friday, trainer John Shirreffs said.

Yankee Gentleman was a half-mile into a six-furlong workout on Wednesday when jockey Julie Krone eased him out of a workout. No injuries surfaced on Wednesday or early Thursday, and Shirreffs said there was no indication that the Storm Cat colt was developing an illness.

"There is no reason to think there is something wrong with his blood," Shirreffs said. "He shows no indication of being sick or coming down with anything."

Yankee Gentleman won the restricted Pirate's Bounty Handicap at Del Mar on Sept. 6 and will make his next start in the $200,000 Ancient Title Breeders' Cup Handicap on Oct. 5, the top prep at Santa Anita for the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

A win or placing in the Ancient Title is considered vital for Yankee Gentleman who needs qualifying points to ensure a starting berth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

Shirreffs said another workout is scheduled for Tuesday.