08/19/2005 12:00AM

Congrats, Baze ready to step up


DEL MAR, Calif. - Richard Mandella, following a set of horses, had just emerged from the dank, shaded grandstand tunnel leading from the Del Mar paddock to the track when a layer of clouds momentarily obscured the bright morning sun.

"Hey, kind of feels like rain, doesn't it?" Mandella said. "My horse loves it wet."

You don't make it to the Hall of Fame through self-delusion, so chalk this one up to a playful piece of wishful thinking. Since last January, it has been hard for Mandella to erase the image of Congrats skipping over the top of a sloppy Santa Anita main track to win the San Pasqual Handicap by 5 1/2 lengths for his owners, Adele Dilschneider and Claiborne Farm.

There is about as much chance of rain for Sunday's $1 million Pacific Classic as there is for snow in the Alabama. What would not be surprising, however, is a victory in Del Mar's marquee event by a horse hailing from the Mandella barn. He has won 3 of the 14 runnings, including the 2004 version with Pleasantly Perfect, and Congrats certainly fits the profile of a horse who should handle the 1 1/4 miles - as long as he runs back to his effort in last winter's Santa Anita Handicap, when he was second to stablemate Rock Hard Ten.

The Rock has had the summer off, recovering from a bout of body soreness, but he's on target to return in October. In the meantime, Congrats has carried the ball, but he has yet to win since the San Pasqual. There is also the matter of the 1 1/4 miles, which has baffled Congrats in several contexts. He was up the track in the 2003 Travers, beaten a pole in the 2004 Saratoga Cup, and a distant fifth in the 2005 Dubai World Cup. More recently, he was third in the Hollywood Gold Cup after making the pace, finishing nearly 10 lengths behind victorious Lava Man.

"He had a terrible trip in Dubai," said Tyler Baze, who has ridden Congrats in each of his seven starts for Mandella. "He stumbled out of the gate and got shut off twice going down the backside. When I finally got him in the clear, he started making his move when Lundy's Liability swung out from the inside, trying to get away from the dirt. He nailed me and kind of took the breath right out of my horse. After going through all that, I was proud of him."

As for Congrats's front-running Hollywood performance, so different from his measured race from behind at Santa Anita, both Mandella and Baze said they see no reason to panic.

"I think you'll see a different Congrats this time," Mandella said. "I wanted to wake him up a little for that race, and I think we did, running him in the Ack Ack at 7 1/2 furlongs before the Gold Cup. So I wasn't really surprised to see him on the lead in the Gold Cup after going the half in 44 and change in the Ack Ack. Since then we've let him settle down."

For his part, Baze is looking to the Classic as a tonic for the malaise of a statistically woeful Del Mar season. Southern California racing fans have grown accustomed to seeing Baze in the mix at the top of the jockey standings, ever since his breakthrough championship at the 2004 Hollywood Park meet. At Del Mar last year, Baze finished second to Corey Nakatani, 54-52, and he was coming off a solid fourth at the end of this summer's highly competitive Hollywood season.

This meet has been different, testing the young rider's patience and tenacity. Through Thursday's program, Baze found himself at the bottom of Del Mar's top 10, with eight winners from 144 mounts and no stakes victories.

"It's tough right now," said Baze, who turns 23 in October. "I feel I'm putting horses where they can win, and they end up running second or third, sometimes to horses who look like they shouldn't even be in the race. It's frustrating, sure, but I can't make a horse run faster than he can run.

"And I can't complain about my business," Baze said. "In fact, business is great. I'm riding between four and eight a day. It does get irritating after awhile when you can't get in the winner's circle every day. But I try not to think about it, and I try not to listen to what people might say. I just keep working hard, keep smiling, and keep showing up."

In his only two Classic appearances, Baze finished third with Fleetstreet Dancer in the four-horse field of 2003, at odds of 24-1, and then last of eight aboard Night Patrol in 2004, at odds of 53-1. Congrats finally gives him a legitimate shot.

"I'm expecting him to run a really good race," Baze said. "All I've got to do is get him in a good spot and point him in the right direction. He's a straightforward horse who knows what to do, and I know Richard will have him ready. I just have to do my job and hope this horse can make my meet."