Updated on 09/17/2011 11:00AM

It's Congaree's race to win or lose

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Congaree (above) has been a golden boy all year - and will be a heavy favorite Saturday for Bob Baffert. Pleasantly Perfect was third to Congaree in the San Antonio Handicap.

ARCADIA, Calif. - The focus will be almost entirely on Congaree in Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Handicap.

Already at this meeting, Congaree has scored convincing wins in the San Pasqual and San Antonio handicaps. Jerry Bailey, a major part of the horse's three-stakes winning streak, will ride, after having defected to Medaglia d'Oro and then regaining the mount. And, Congaree is unbeaten in his career at Santa Anita, a winning streak he could stretch to five in the Big Cap, the richest race of the meeting.

"I don't have any excuses right now," Bob Baffert, who trains Congaree, said on Thursday morning.

Congaree will be an odds-on favorite to win the Big Cap, which is run over 1 1/4 miles. The distance is about the only question mark facing Congaree, who races for Robert and Janice McNair's Stonerside Stable. In his only appearance over 1 1/4 miles, Congaree finished third in the 2001 Kentucky Derby, losing by 4 3/4 lengths after leading in early stretch.

"He's relaxed now. He's not like War Emblem," Baffert said, referring to his 2002 Kentucky Derby winner who was a committed front-runner. "The way he relaxes, I think he can get a mile and a quarter if he doesn't go too fast. He ran a brilliant race over a mile and a quarter in the Kentucky Derby. He chased a fast pace and hung around for third."

Last weekend, Bailey said he would ride Strub Stakes winner Medaglia d'Oro in the Big Cap. But on Tuesday, Bailey was invited to ride Congaree after Medaglia d'Oro was declared out of the race. Medaglia d'Oro's trainer, Bobby Frankel, said he was unhappy with his horse's 124-pound weight assignment, the same assignment as Congaree, who spots his rivals 5 to 12 pounds.

Without Medaglia d'Oro, Congaree lost his biggest opponent, but still faces six other stakes winners in the Big Cap.

The Big Cap is the ninth race on an 11-race program that starts at noon. The card also features the San Rafael Stakes for 3-year-olds over a mile and the $400,000 Frank Kilroe Mile on turf.

All seven of the entrants in the Big Cap have won stakes in the last 15 months. The top threats are Milwaukee Brew, the defending champion; Kudos, the winner of the 2002 Oaklawn Handicap; and Pleasantly Perfect, the winner of the 2002 Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap on this track.

Other starters, all longshots, are Sligo Bay, a Grade 1 stakes winner on turf who is making his dirt debut; Piensa Sonando, the winner of the Native Diver Handicap at Hollywood Park in December; and Trompolino, the winner of the Chilean St. Leger in 2001.

Trompolino is an outsider, but he may have a say in the outcome. Trained by Gary Mandella, Trompolino drew the rail and is expected to set the pace. He is likely to be the only horse trying for the lead, leaving Congaree as a stalker.

A fast pace would help closers such as Kudos, Milwaukee Brew, and Pleasantly Perfect.

Milwaukee Brew and Kudos were first and third in the quick-paced 2002 Big Cap.

Milwaukee Brew is attempting to become the first two-time winner of the Big Cap since John Henry (1981-82). Trained by Bobby Frankel, Milwaukee Brew has had one start this year, finishing second to Congaree in the San Antonio Handicap over 1 1/8 miles. Frankel is optimistic that a quick pace will help Milwaukee Brew. "If Trompolino goes in the race, then there will be a little pace," Frankel said. "If Congaree has one in front of him, that might help."

Richard Mandella, the father of Gary Mandella, trains Kudos and Pleasantly Perfect, both of whom chased Congaree in their last start.

Kudos finished second in the San Pasqual Handicap on Jan. 4. "He closed well to be a good second, but Congaree won easily that day," Mandella said. "I decided to pass the San Antonio because I wanted him to be fresh."

Pleasantly Perfect finished third in the San Antonio Handicap, his first start since the Goodwood Handicap.

"I was surprised at how much he needed that race," Mandella said.

The Richard Mandella pair, and the other four starters, will need to be at their best to beat Congaree, whose trainer stopped just short of predicting victory earlier this week.

"He's never been doing any better," Baffert said. "He's on top of his game. They way he worked the other day, and the way he's come out of the work, he's sitting on a big race."

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