02/24/2003 1:00AM

Frankel thinking twice about Big Cap weights


ARCADIA, Calif. - Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro, the two top handicap horses in California, remain on schedule for Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, but trainer Bobby Frankel on Monday warned that Medaglia d'Oro was not a definite starter.

Frankel said he was upset that Medaglia d'Oro was given the same 124-pound weight assignment as Congaree, and that he may skip the richest race of the Santa Anita meeting.

"It's a long year," he said. "He's been given 124 pounds. Where does he go from there? I'll have to think about it."

The Big Cap will be the first time that the 4-year-old Medaglia d'Oro has appeared in a handicap. Last year, he ran primarily against 3-year-olds in the Triple Crown and in stakes run under allowance conditions. He made one appearance in a weight-for-age race, finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

As recently as late last week, it was questionable whether both horses would start, but their trainers decided over the weekend to point for the Big Cap, which is run over 1 1/4 miles.

Plans to start both Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro have forced jockey Jerry Bailey to choose a mount.

The regular rider of both horses in recent months, Bailey will ride Medaglia d'Oro, the winner of the Strub Stakes on Feb. 1, his only start of 2003. Bailey has ridden Medaglia d'Oro in his last four starts, a span that includes victories in the Jim Dandy Stakes and Travers Stakes and a second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup at Arlington Park.

Bailey has ridden Congaree to wins in his last three starts - the Cigar Mile last November and the San Pasqual and San Antonio handicaps at this meeting.

On Monday, trainer Bob Baffert said that the mount on Congaree would go to Victor Espinoza or David Flores. He said that a decision would be made after consulting with owners Robert and Janice McNair.

Baffert insisted he was in no hurry to make a decision, wondering if Medaglia d'Oro may defect before entries are drawn on Thursday.

"A lot of things can happen in three days in this business," Baffert said. "I'm going to wait until the last minute."

Espinoza rode Congaree four times in 2001, including a victory in the Wood Memorial and a third in the Kentucky Derby. Flores has ridden Congaree once, to a third-place finish in the San Diego Handicap last summer at Del Mar.

The 124-pound assignments for Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro are the highest weights for a Big Cap starter since Silver Charm carried that weight to a third-place finish behind Free House (123 pounds) in 1998.

Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro will spot the other five expected starters five to nine pounds. The other starters are defending Big Cap winner, Milwaukee Brew, 119; Kudos, 117; Pleasantly Perfect and Sligo Bay, 116; and Piensa Sonando, 115.

All seven are stakes winners. Milwaukee Brew was second to Congaree in the San Antonio and won the Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park last June. Kudos won the 2002 Oaklawn Handicap and was second to Congaree in the San Pasqual Handicap on Jan. 4.

Pleasantly Perfect won the Goodwood Handicap last October and finished third in the San Antonio. Sligo Bay won the Hollywood Turf Cup last November and will be making his first start on the main track.

Piensa Sonando will be the longest shot in the field. He won the Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park in December, but was fourth in the San Pasqual and San Antonio handicaps.

The appearance of Congaree and Medaglia d'Oro would give the Santa Anita Handicap a much-needed boost in star quality after several years of losing some of the circuit's top handicap horses to the $6 million Dubai World Cup.

"It could be a hell of a race," Baffert said. "You won't see a race like that for a while."

In recent weeks, Frankel has mentioned the Dubai World Cup on March 29 as a goal, but said he was concerned about conflict in the region between Iraq and the United States.

Frankel trains Milwaukee Brew, who will be out to become the first repeat winner of the Big Cap since John Henry (1981-82).

On Saturday at Hollywood Park, Frankel worked Medaglia d'Oro in company with Milwaukee Brew.

The pair worked as a team through six furlongs with Medaglia d'Oro leading by a half-length. Both horses were timed in 1:13.40 and galloped out seven furlongs in 1:26.40.

Frankel is thrilled with Medaglia d'Oro's preparation in the last month. The Strub, a seven-length win, was Medaglia d'Oro's first victory since the Travers Stakes at Saratoga last August.

"He didn't run his best race," Frankel said of the Strub. "He ran to his competition."

On Sunday, Congaree worked six furlongs at Santa Anita in 1:11.81 before the first race. Congaree set slow early fractions of 24.92 and 48.95 seconds and finished the final quarter-mile in 22.86 seconds.

"It was an awesome work," Baffert said.

On Monday at Hollywood Park, Sligo Bay breezed three furlongs in 37.20 seconds.

He will be a longshot against a field that includes two horses who have risen to the top of the handicap division already this year.