05/19/2011 10:59AM

Hoping Preakness karma is on King Congie's side


Once again expectations are high for a Kentucky Derby winner to add a victory in the Preakness Stakes, thereby setting up the heady prospect of a possible Triple Crown champion. This time around it is Animal Kingdom’s turn in the barrel, and good luck to him on this difficult journey.

Among those who know first hand how tough such a climb can be is Terry Finley, a former U.S. Army officer who is founder and president of West Point Thoroughbreds. As a fan of 13, Finley bore eyewitness to Affirmed’s victories over Alydar in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness of 1978, an experience made possible by his father, a high school chemistry teacher and hardcore racing aficionado.

“We drove all night from our home near Philadelphia − me and three teachers − to make it to Churchill Downs,” Finley said. “Then when they came to Pimlico, right down the road, that was very cool.”

The imprint of Affirmed and Alydar in ferocious battle has lingered, helping to inform Finley’s philosophy in the operation of the New Jersey-based West Point syndicates. One of the partnership groups will be represented at Pimlico on Saturday by Tropical Park Derby winner King Congie.

Animal Kingdom’s brief, fascinating journey to the center of the racing universe has served to shine a spotlight on the horse partnerships that offer a portfolio of racing products for investors who prefer to spread the risk. Animal Kingdom races for Team Valor International, based in Kentucky with its founder and president, Barry Irwin.

Unlike Team Valor, which has consolidated its racing stock in the hands of one trainer, Graham Motion, West Point spreads its assets among many outfits, including Motion’s, as well as those of Todd Pletcher, Dale Romans, Dallas Stewart, Craig Dollase, John Sadler, Mark Casse, and Wayne Catalano, Animal Kingdom’s first trainer. The natural inclination was to ask Finley about the comment from Irwin, made in the immediate aftermath of Animal Kingdom’s Derby triumph, that he settled on Motion because he was “tired of other trainers lying to me.” Irwin has since apologized, and Finley refused to take the bait.

“I give him the benefit of the doubt,” Finley said. “He’s a complex guy, and he’s been great for our game. I’m not going to hold one comment against him, especially when made in the glare of winning the Derby. I wouldn’t want someone to do that to me.

“I know we fight for the same people,” Finley said. “Barry’s had some things to say about us and other partnerships, and he’s got a pretty good opinion of himself. It’s about the body of work, though, and look at his. It’s pretty darn good. The bottom line is that he’s helped the business. Look at all the people who’ll be converging on Pimlico as part of Team Valor or West Point, all of them enthusiastic advocates for the sport.”

With five starts to his name and his best efforts on grass and synthetics, King Congie probably will attract more sentimental support than smart money. The son of Badge of Silver is named for Congie DeVito, the popular communications director for West Point Thoroughbreds who died last February after a lifelong struggle with the debilitating effects of what’s known as brittle bone disease. DeVito was 35.

Stir in the fact that King Congie will be ridden by Robby Albarado, who was originally supposed to ride Animal Kingdom in the Derby but was replaced in the wake of suffering facial injuries three days before the race (he competed and won on Derby Day anyway), and you have a confluence of karma that could make some players at least give the West Point colt a second look.

“You’d like to think Robby might have a little more motivation, but it’s not like coming out of the locker room, flying down the football field, and breaking the wedge,” Finley said. “Here you’ve got to be cool and ride a smart race. There’s no wing-dinging or looking for just one horse. I know Robby is healthy and in good spirits, and like Albertrani he’s had luck in the Preakness.”

Albarado was aboard Curlin for their narrow score over Street Sense in 2007. Tapping into the same vein, King Congie is trained by Tom Albertrani, a former Bill Mott disciple who sent out Bernardini to win the 2006 Preakness, in which Barbaro suffered what turned out to be a fatal injury at the start.

King Congie was a $100,000 purchase as a 2-year-old who did not win until his trainer put him on grass over a distance of ground.

“Albertrani’s not a guy who really gets them cranked up early,” Finley said. “At least, when he doesn’t lie to me I feel he tells me the truth.”

Well, a guy can resist temptation only so long. Finley let the wisecrack stand.

“We were supposed to run in the Spiral,” he said, referring to the Kentucky Derby prep won by Animal Kingdom at Turfway in March. “He flew in that Thursday before the race and came off the track Friday a little stiff behind. Turns out he strained a glute muscle.”

West Point partnerships have scored major victories with horses such as Awesome Gem, Flashy Bull, El Gato Malo, Lear’s Princess, and Macho Again, who was second in the 2008 Preakness to Big Brown. King Congie came close to joining that list when he was third, beaten a head, in the Blue Grass Stakes on April 16.

“He’d worked only once since the trip to Turfway, and he finished that day like a horse who might be a work or two short,” Finley said.

As a result, King Congie did not have enough earnings to make the Derby field. Finley calls that a blessing in disguise.

“As much as we’d have loved running, he does not seem like the kind of horse who would have come back in just three weeks with another big effort, at least under those circumstances,” Finley said.

The Preakness has been the most formful of the Triple Crown events, making a victory by King Congie − or any of the other second-tier Preakness runners − historically unlikely. True shockers such as Bee Bee Bee and Deputed Testamony both were aided and abetted by sloppy racetracks, and Saturday’s weather is supposed to be warm and dry.

“Even so, I don’t think we’re doing anything stupid, and I don’t think he’s going to be 50-1,” Finley said. “At any rate, I know we’ll play an active part in making sure he’s not.”