01/29/2004 12:00AM

A Super Bowl-Congaree parlay

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Robert McNair can be excused if he is not front and center at Santa Anita Park on Saturday to witness the 2004 debut of his 6-year-old war horse, Congaree, in the San Antonio Handicap.

As the man who brought Sunday's Super Bowl to Houston, McNair figured he'd better stay close to home and catch Congaree via satellite. You never know when something might come up, some last-minute detail with the big show, or one more interview required by one of the 3,200 members of the media in town.

McNair brought NFL football back to his corner of Texas two years ago with the debut of the Houston Texans in their spanking new $449 million home and the promise of a Super Bowl to follow. McNair is CEO and chairman of the Texans organization, and he also put up $25 million of his own money as a loan toward the construction of Reliant Stadium.

The hyper-modern facility should be as much a star of Super Bowl XXXVIII as Willie Nelson, Janet Jackson, Toby Keith, or Kid Rock (a personal favorite). And while the Texans still seem a few years away from Super Bowl contention (9-23 after two seasons), that won't stop McNair and company from celebrating like they'll be there soon. After all, it only took the Carolina Panthers nine years.

Congaree, for his part, has provided McNair with both instant and lasting gratification. As the brilliant winner of the 2001 Wood Memorial, he has emerged as the most durable and consistent member of a generation that included Point Given, Monarchos, Balto Star, and Thunder Blitz.

Three years later, he's still going strong for trainer Bob Baffert. Congaree was a finalist in three separate categories for 2003 Eclipse Awards - older male, sprinter and Horse of the Year - but left the event empty-handed. The good news is that he is back for another campaign for McNair, whose goal is nothing less than a 2004 championship. Any championship.

"It's taking a chance, sure," McNair said from his Houston home. "I can understand why people retire their older horses, which works against racing expanding its fan base. But out there on Saturday, Congaree will be giving away three pounds to the horse that beat him in the Breeders' Cup. I don't understand it."

McNair was referring to Congaree's 124-pound assignment for the San Antonio, compared to 121 pounds for Breeders' Cup Classic winner Pleasantly Perfect.

"It's like the Santa Anita Handicap last year," McNair went on. "We gave up five pounds to Milwaukee Brew, Congaree loses by three inches or something (actually, a head), and everybody 'understands' that he was giving that weight. Well, they don't understand when they're voting for Horse of the Year or older horse. If he had won the Santa Anita Handicap, that might have made a big difference in the voting, because at the end of the day, everybody looks as the races you win, not the weight you give away."

McNair's sentiments echoed those of many owners through the years whose best horses were compromised by the system of arbitrary handicaps. In the case of the San Antonio assignments, the relative merits of Congaree and Pleasantly Perfect clearly were not based on the Breeders' Cup Classic, in which Pleasantly Perfect defeated Congaree by 2 1/2 lengths at level weights of 126 pounds. More likely, the Santa Anita racing department dipped back to previous encounters, such as the 2003 San Antonio Handicap, in which the victorious Congaree carried 123 pounds, beating Pleasantly Perfect and his 117 pounds by 3 1/4 lengths.

If it makes sense to base this weekend's weights on form of 12 months ago, fine. McNair challenges racing's operators to explain that to the new guy walking through the door.

"I'm not on a tirade about Congaree, per se," McNair noted. "It's about the sport, and what we're doing to it. Sports fans just don't understand it, and that's discouraging.

"To really build our fan base, the best races should be at equal weights, to find out who's really the best horse," he added. "In handicap racing you're not finding out the best horse. You're finding out how much weight you have to put on the best horse to make him lose."

Which is sort of like asking the favored Patriots to travel 15 yards for their first downs on Sunday instead of the traditional 10.

"Nobody would understand it," McNair said. "What if you gave one team three downs instead of four? Or in baseball, what if you give the best hitters two strikes instead of three?

"Anyway, we need to get a race into Congaree now," he added. "If there was another option that made sense, we'd be there. But for the rest of the year, to the extent we can, we'll just avoid handicap racing."

As for Sunday's game, McNair is making an attempt at hospitable neutrality, but his Carolina roots are definitely showing.

"Carolina was my home before I came to Texas," McNair said. "I lived in Charlotte when I was a kid. And the Congaree River starts in North Carolina and ends up in South Carolina. So I have to pull for the Panthers."