03/10/2004 1:00AM

Strong Hope overwhelms


Look out, Congaree.

Strong Hope prepped for a possible showdown with Congaree in next month's Grade 1 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct with a jaw-dropping return to the races Wednesday at Gulfstream Park. With John Velazquez simply holding on, Strong Hope ($3.20) won a six-furlong classified allowance race by 9 3/4 lengths. His final time of 1:08.77 is believed to be the fastest six furlongs run at this meet.

Strong Hope, who won last year's Dwyer and Jim Dandy Stakes, was making his first start since finishing third in last August's Travers. The mammoth colt looked sharp in the paddock and ran to his looks, breaking on top and opening up on his own courage. With Velazquez trying to gear him down, Strong Hope ran his final eighth in 11.85 seconds. David's Expectation finished second.

"It didn't look like six furlongs was a problem today," trainer Todd Pletcher said. "I felt like I had him ready to run, but I hadn't overdone it. His work tab was consistent, nothing really fast. He left there running today, he was awesome today.''

"Yikes," Velazquez said. "Boy, did he want to run today. I had such a hold of him he got mad at me. I opened up my hands past the wire and he took off.''

Pletcher said he plans to run Strong Hope next in the Grade 1, $300,000 Carter Handicap against Congaree, the defending Carter winner who is 4 for 4 in stakes at Aqueduct.

"If all things go smoothly between now and then," Pletcher said, "and Congaree is weighted properly, then we should have a chance."