08/01/2001 11:00PM

Tough part is deciding who to couple with Congaree

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - In spite of its nickname, the Graveyard of Favorites, the first seven racing days at Saratoga proved to be chalk-friendly. The public choice won 29 of the first 66 races, for a success rate of nearly 44 percent, well above the statistical norm. Through Thursday, there had not yet been a two-day carryover in the pick six, which is most unusual this far into a Spa meet.

The first nine stakes, including divisions of the Lake George, produced "only" three winning favorites: Hap in the Bernard Baruch; Victory Ride in the Test; and Voodoo Dancer in the Lake George's second division. But a case could easily have been made for the likes of several other winners: Touch Love (7-2) in the Schuylerville; Buster's Daydream (4-1) in the Sanford; Lido Palace (5-2) in the Whitney; Big Bambu (2-1) in the Honorable Miss; and Serra Lake (8-1) in the Go for Wand all had their merits. About the only real head-scratcher was Light Dancer at 37-1 in the Lake George's first heat.

It would be nice to have a wise-guy idea in the win pool about Saturday's Jim Dandy, but Congaree figures to be odds-on against six rivals, and really has no knocks aside from the fact that he must concede anywhere from five to nine pounds to the field. That weight spread is not going to matter.

After winning the Wood Memorial just two starts and 45 days after his maiden victory, Congaree put up a pair of impressive third-place finishes in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, each time facing difficult pace scenarios. While much was made of the eye-catching Derby fractions recorded over a lightning-fast track at Churchill Downs, the pace of the Preakness, even though the raw numbers may not suggest it, was also exceptionally fast. In fact, my own Quirin-style pace and speed figures came up 111-111 for the Derby, and 112-115 for the Preakness.

Even though Congaree was necked late for second by A P Valentine in the Preakness, that was the only time A P Valentine has managed to crack the 100 plateau on the Beyer scale.

Congaree, however, earned a 100 for his maiden win, and has since put up five more triple-digit figures in a row, the latest in the Swaps when allowed to lope along on an easy lead. My Quirin-style figs for the Swaps of 102-110 reflected the very slow pace, which can be looked at two ways:

Granted, Congaree had everything his own way on the lead, but unlike some of his earlier races he seemed to rate willingly, and was content to ration out his energy however new rider Gary Stevens wanted him to.

The pool to exploit in the Jim Dandy may be the exacta. Congaree has an edge in current sharpness thanks to his Swaps race, but probable second choice A P Valentine has been idle for two months since contesting all three legs of the grueling Triple Crown series, and probably won't be anywhere close to his best for this Travers prep.

The logical alternatives to get second behind Congaree are Indygo Shiner, Windsor Castle, and Free of Love.

Free of Love may slip through the cracks and offer the most value. He was tried and found wanting in the Tampa Bay Derby and Flamingo back in the spring, but returned from a freshening at Belmont to run a pair of strong races in second-level allowance routes, earning figures that put him squarely in the mix with Indygo Shiner, Windsor Castle, and A P Valentine.

Early trends at Saratoga

During the first half of the meet in 1999, and again in 2000, the two inside posts were Death Valley out of the chute in seven-furlong races at Saratoga. But that has not been the case this year: The first 13 seven-furlong races have already produced four winners from those stalls - Max O Max and City Fair, who won from the rail; along with Vespers and Red Bullet, who won from post 2.

Seven winners with a last-race line from Churchill won at Saratoga during the first seven days. There were four from Monmouth, three from Delaware, and two each from Hollywood Park and Keeneland.

Exacta players take note: Churchill invaders have completed nine additional gimmicks. Shippers from Colonial Downs ran second in the first two steeplechase events -- at odds of 26-1 and 9-1.