07/13/2003 11:00PM

With maturity may come stardom

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INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Jerry Bailey pulled a yellow rose from the blanket of Hollywood Gold Cup flowers draped across his lap, dismounted, and presented the rose to Laffit Pincay. Pincay beamed with surprise, then slipped the rose into the lapel of his sharp summer suit.

Bob Baffert dashed this way to do a postrace Gold Cup interview with ESPN and then that way for a marathon round of winner's circle pictures, which included an entire album's worth of photos standing beside Pincay, who just happens to be Baffert's Arcadia neighbor.

The day, it seemed, belonged completely to these three caballeros - Bailey, Baffert, and Pincay. They were everywhere, but mostly in the winner's circle, putting on a show that the 21,017 fans in the house won't soon forget.

It is possible, though, if they weren't paying close attention, that they might have trouble recalling the winner of the 64th running of the Hollywood Gold Cup. And that would be too bad.

He is named for a river and moves with a liquid stride that his voluble trainer simply describes as "beautiful." Pretty is as pretty does, and that says it all about Congaree, who now can lay solid claim to the title of America's most versatile main-track runner.

Winning major stakes at seven, eight, 8 1/2, nine, and 10 furlongs, while racing on both coasts over the past eight months, clearly makes the case. And yet Congaree seems to spend much of his time proving himself over and over again, as if he were crashing a party that only had room for horses named Mineshaft and Medaglia d'Oro.

To paraphrase the words of our fearless leader, "Bring 'em on."

Congaree is a naturally fast horse who always appears most comfortable on the lead. He has that classic, foot-flinging action that grabs an extra piece of ground in every stride cycle, thereby reducing his overall workload.

It is the rider's job - and in most cases that means Bailey - to convince Congaree that the first couple of furlongs are a mere formality, an appetizer, and that the real racing does not start until the backstretch. This was made more difficult in the Gold Cup, however, by the tactics of Patrick Valenzuela on the longshot Golden Ticket.

While floating Western Pride and Jose Valdivia wide on the first turn, Valenzuela left a gaping hole to his left. At that point Congaree was cooperating with Bailey, biding his time. But then he was suddenly confronted with this broad expanse of daylight. Moses and the Red Sea come to mind.

"He got a little aggressive," Bailey said. "But I got him back."

That made the difference, and from there Congaree was in command of himself, and the Gold Cup. By the time he reached the quarter pole, the rest had either been run off their feet or rendered impotent by their inability stay in reasonable touch with the leaders. Congaree won by a widening three lengths in spite of a final quarter-mile that required more than 26 seconds to complete.

After the race - after everyone had taken their turn in a picture with nine-time Gold Cup winner Pincay - John Adger stood to one side and waxed romantic about Congaree.

"He means so much to Stonerside," said Adger, who serves as racing manager for the Stonerside Stable of Bob and Janice McNair. "When you breed one like this, it's all the more special."

Congaree's dam is Mari's Sheba, a mare originally from the rich broodmare band of the late Jack Kent Cooke and his Elmendorf Farm. It fits. Cooke owned the Washington Redskins. Bob McNair owns the Houston Texans.

Congaree's sire, on the other hand, presents a different challenge. The statute of limitations has expired on Arazi's impact in that 1991 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and now, based upon his performance at stud, sons of Arazi are not particularly commercial. As Arazi's only noteworthy American offspring, Congaree is practically an orphan in the bloodstock world, required to make his reputation from scratch.

"We all thought Arazi was going to be the second coming of Secretariat," Adger said. "Obviously, he's been a flop, except for Congaree. Now that Congaree has proven to be so versatile, and so fast, that's what everybody seems to want.

"But if he hadn't run well here today," Adger added, "we would have thought seriously about shortening him up and maybe running him in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, kind of like Fred Hooper did with Precisionist."

Summoning the name of Precisionist was appropriate. He was, like Congaree, that most versatile of Thoroughbreds, with a range that extended from six to 10 furlongs at high speeds. His consummate credentials have landed Precisionist in Saratoga's Racing Hall of Fame, where he will be enshrined this summer.

Precisionist's victory in the 1985 Breeders' Cup Sprint, however, was not a retreat. It was the first major race available at the end of a layoff. Ross Fenstermaker's training job remains one of the greatest in Breeders' Cup history, and Precisionist went on to win major middle-distance races in 1986.

Congaree is racing at age 5 because his pedigree did not force an early, economically motivated retirement. He is performing at his best and taming his speed because he was allowed to mature and still be a racehorse at the age of 5. There must be a lesson in there somewhere, because the game truly could use a few more Congarees.