10/21/2003 12:00AM

Nothing's perfect for Congaree

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Trainer Bob Baffert calls Congaree the best horse in the country, but the question to be answered on Saturday is whether that title comes with an asterisk.

Congaree clearly is one of the best horses from seven furlongs to 1 1/8 miles. He whipped Aldebaran, the likely favorite for the Breeders' Cup Sprint, going seven furlongs in April, and in February he won going nine furlongs in the San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita.

Finding an ideal race for him on Breeders' Cup Day has proven a little more challenging. The ideal distance for Congaree probably would be one mile, but since the only Breeders' Cup race at that distance is on turf, a surface over which Congaree finished seventh in his only start, that's out. The Sprint is at six furlongs, which is a little sharp for Congaree. The Classic, at 1 1/4 miles, likely tests the limits of Congaree's distance capabilities, but considering the options for the Breeders' Cup, it's the best choice.

So, Congaree will go in the Classic on Saturday at Santa Anita. On the plus side, he has proven he can handle 10 furlongs. He won the Hollywood Gold Cup this summer, and was a narrow loser in the Santa Anita Handicap in March. He also has won four times in five starts at Santa Anita, his lone loss coming in the Big Cap. Congaree, however, most recently lost going nine furlongs to Perfect Drift, one of his rivals in the Classic. And just to make this task all the more challenging, Congaree has been treated this past week for a quarter crack in his left hind hoof.

"You've got to have something to make it interesting," said Baffert.

Baffert was concerned when Congaree first developed the crack last week, but his mood has lightened noticeably in recent days, coinciding with the improvement Congaree has shown in his morning gallops.

Congaree has been one of the nation's leaders for three straight seasons. He finished third in the 2001 Kentucky Derby to Monarchos and Invisible Ink while finishing in front of his more highly acclaimed stablemate Point Given. He has won stakes at Santa Anita, Hollywood Park, and Del Mar; is unbeaten in three starts at Aqueduct, including the Wood Memorial; and won his lone start in Texas. He has won 11 of 21 starts, and $2,803,400.

Baffert is proudest, though, that Congaree is still going strong some 2 1/2 years after the Triple Crown. One of the reasons he has made it this long has been judicious management from Baffert. For instance, this summer, Baffert kept Congaree out of races at Del Mar, even though a couple looked ripe for the taking.

"I didn't even nominate him to those races, so I wouldn't be tempted," Baffert said.

Congaree is one of 10 horses who were expected to be entered in the Classic on Wednesday. The field was expected to be Congaree (Pat Valenzuela the rider), Dynever (Corey Nakatani), Evening Attire (John Velazquez), Funny Cide (Julie Krone), Hold That Tiger (Edgar Prado), Medaglia d'Oro (Jerry Bailey), Perfect Drift (Gary Stevens), Pleasantly Perfect (Alex Solis), Ten Most Wanted (Pat Day), and Volponi (Jose Santos).

Falbrav was pre-entered in the Classic and Turf, but it was announced on Tuesday he would be entered in the Turf. Toccet (Russell Baze) is expected to be entered in the Turf, too.

Dynever arrived from New York on Tuesday. Perfect Drift is scheduled to fly here from Kentucky on Thursday.