04/09/2003 11:00PM

Questions for Congaree in Carter

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OZONE PARK, N.Y. - All eyes will be on Empire Maker in Saturday's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, but the best race on the card may be the one that follows, the $350,000 Carter Handicap.

Four of the five Carter starters are Grade 1 winners. The probable favorite is the Bob Baffert-trained Congaree, who won the 2001 Wood Memorial and 2002 Cigar Mile at Aqueduct.

In the field are the last two winners of the Grade 1 Carter, Peeping Tom and Affirmed Success, who at 9 is the oldest horse in the race. Bobby Frankel, Empire Maker's trainer, will saddle Aldebaran, the winner of the Grade 1 San Carlos at Santa Anita last month. Completing the field is New York-bred Papua, who makes his graded stakes debut.

If there is something not to like about Congaree, the 122-pound highweight, it is that he hasn't raced at the Carter's seven-furlong distance and he has not run shorter than one mile since finishing sixth in his lone start as a 2-year-old.

Another question is how Congaree will fare over a wet track, which is likely to be heavy with rain in Friday's forecast. Congaree has raced twice on off tracks in 17 career starts and won a maiden race as a 3-year-old on a wet-fast surface and finished third in the Jim Dandy on a good track.

"They are two question marks, but he has been training well and likes the track," said Baffert, who trains Congaree for Stonerside Stable. "I thought it might be the spot to try something different with him."

Congaree, who will be ridden by Gary Stevens, looked strong winning this year's San Pasqual and San Antonio at Santa Anita. He suffered a narrow defeat in the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap when he was second to Milwaukee Brew on March 1.

Congaree, breaking from post 2, figures to be a pace factor in the absence of any real speedballs.

There is no mystery surrounding Affirmed Success's competence at seven furlongs or in the mud. He owns a record of 7-4-2 in 13 starts at the Carter distance. On wet tracks, he has won three of five starts and posted a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 120 when he won the Forego at 4.

Richard Schosberg, Affirmed Success's trainer, said his horse must improve off the 110 Beyer he earned by winning last month's Toboggan to capture the Carter.

"I don't think a 110 will win it - you could hit the board," Schosberg said.

Schosberg said Affirmed Success, who will be ridden by Richard Migliore, will be forwardly placed if the track is sloppy and favors speed.

"If that's the case, you don't want to take away his natural speed," Schosberg said.

Affirmed Success drew post 3.

Aldebaran, second behind Congaree in the Cigar Mile, ran a big race in the San Carlos on March 2 off a three-month layoff. A closer, Aldebaran drew off to a five-length win over a field that included last year's Godolphin Mile winner, Grey Memo.

Frankel said he isn't concerned about an off track and pointed to Aldebaran's second-place finish behind Orientate in last year's Commonwealth Breeders' Cup on a sloppy surface at Keeneland.

Jerry Bailey rides Aldebaran, who needs an honest pace.

Peeping Tom lacked room in deep stretch in the Toboggan and finished second behind Affirmed Success, beaten a length.

"If he can duplicate his last two races, he has to be right there," said Pat Reynolds, Peeping Tom's trainer.

Papua is in tough, but is 4 for 4 over wet tracks and gets a break in the weights at 111 pounds.