Updated on 09/16/2011 7:35AM

How good is Congaree?

Congaree gallops at Churchill Downs on Thursday, preparing for Saturday's Stephen Foster Handicap. His trainer, Bob Baffert, thinks he may be the best horse in training.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - If it is possible to run a monster race while finishing third, well, that's exactly what Congaree did the last time he raced at Churchill Downs. The colt was passed in the stretch run of the 2001 Kentucky Derby by Monarchos and Invisible Ink, but only after earning the admiration of many handicappers by emerging as the lone survivor of a punishing pace.

More than 13 months later, Congaree is back at Churchill, running not for roses, but for an opportunity to greatly enhance his stature within the North American handicap division. Congaree is one of eight older horses entered Saturday in the $750,000 , which will be run as a Grade 1 for the first time in its 21-year history.

The Foster is the signature race in what Churchill is calling its Stephen Foster Super Saturday program. Three other stakes races surround the Foster on an 11-race card: the $100,000 Northern Dancer, the $300,000 Fleur de Lis, and the $150,000 Regret. Those races make up an all-stakes pick four. The Foster also is part of a national pick three wager arranged by the NTRA. The Dallas Turf Cup and Hollywood Oaks are the other subject races.

Congaree, owned by the Stonerside Stable of Bob and Janice McNair, is trained by Bob Baffert, who in recent weeks has had a difficult time containing his enthusiasm for the colt. Even on mornings when he was training War Emblem up to the Triple Crown, Baffert often broke the tension by gushing over Congaree, whom he dared to call quite possibly the best horse currently in training.

Those bold statements got some validation on May 11, when Congaree captured the Lone Star Park Handicap, a race that followed a layoff of nearly 10 months. In the Foster, Congaree will take on a far tougher group than what he faced in Texas, thus providing a fairer gauge of just how he rates in the division.

"We're really excited about him," said Baffert. "I've always thought he was a good horse, but the way he's come back, there's no telling how good he might be. This ought to be a good race to show us what he's got."

Baffert said the Lone Star comeback should serve a useful purpose and that Congaree "loves the track here." Although Baffert initially objected to Congaree being assigned highweight of 121 pounds, he said the colt's fondness for Churchill and the fact he has been stabled here for the last two months were overriding factors in deciding to go ahead and run.

A victory by Congaree, who was assigned post 1 and will be ridden by Pat Day, would be the first for Baffert in the 1 1/8-mile Foster - even though the trainer has sent out such fan favorites as Silver Charm (1998-99) and Captain Steve (2001) since Churchill raised the Foster purse to $750,000-added four years ago.

Clearly the main challenger to Congaree is Street Cry, the Godolphin Racing star who won the world's richest horse race, the $6 million Dubai World Cup, in his most recent start March 23. Tom Albertrani, assistant to trainer Saeed bin Suroor, said the colt has flourished in the nearly three months that have passed and that the stable is approaching the Foster "with confidence."

Street Cry, assigned 120 pounds, breaks from post 4 under Jerry Bailey.

Besides the two favorites, several other horses rate solid chances. They are Tenpins, who attracted national attention by posting his fifth straight victory on the Preakness undercard; Parade Leader, who was a runaway winner of the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap in March; and Unshaded, winner of the 2000 Travers Stakes.

Dollar Bill, Connected, and Proper Man round out the field.

Post time for the Foster is 5:44 p.m. Eastern. First post is 1:10.



Purse: $750,000; 1 1/8 miles; Grade 1

1CongareeP. Day1218-5
2TenpinsC. Perret1158-1
3ConnectedL. Melancon11212-1
4Street CryJ. Bailey1205-2
5Proper ManJ. Chavez11020-1
6Dollar BillM. Guidry1146-1
7UnshadedJ. Court11510-1
8Parade LeaderC. Borel11310-1

Odds by Byron King

Television: Saturday, 5-6 p.m., CBS