07/17/2003 11:00PM

Versatility may outweigh sire's stigma


LEXINGTON, Ky. - With his victory in the Hollywood Gold Cup, Congaree has stretched his sphere of influence among older Grade 1 performers from seven to 10 furlongs. John Adger, the racing and bloodstock manager for the Stonerside Stable of Robert and Janice McNair, said that "he's got to be considered the most versatile horse in training, with Grade 1 victories at seven, eight, nine, and 10 furlongs."

Indeed, at a time when many breeders and writers are commenting on the lack of versatility in the breed, Congaree is an example of what the Thoroughbred can do.

Adger said, "I told the McNairs the two races that will define his career are winning the Carter, beating the two previous winners and Aldebaran, and coming back to win on Sunday and beating two really good horses in Harlan's Holiday and Kudos. Those victories really filled out and completed his rŽsumŽ for when he goes to stud."

Since the horse is 5, this may be Congaree's last season of racing, but Adger noted that the "Thoroughbred Championship Tour is out there, and that's a serious consideration, because Bob has considerable interest in seeing that project succeed. But right now we're just taking it one race at a time, and at the end of the day, we're going to do what's best for the horse."

With good fortune on their side, the Stonerside group will enjoy the ride with their big chestnut, and they also realize that Congaree is a horse with the potential to make a successful stallion.

Adger said, "Obviously, the McNairs know he's a very important horse for our farm, but we hadn't thought too much about him as a stallion until he won the Cigar Mile last fall. Even then we were thinking in terms of a regional market, and we were approached by a couple of quality regional operations. But since he's had such a good run this year, several prominent Kentucky farms have talked to us about him."

The financial pressures of racing a large string of horses make selling a stallion all the more attractive. The McNairs, however, "have said that they want to enjoy his racing career," Adger said, "and when the time comes for Congaree to retire, then they will sit down, listen to the options from the various farms, and choose the one that can propose the best plan for the horse."

Stonerside will not be on the sidelines when Congaree is retired, either. Adger recognizes the importance that a supportive owner can have in a stallion's career and said that "when Congaree goes to stud, we would support him in a serious way and breed some high-class mares to him. That way, we give him the best possible chance."

For breeders, one of the most attractive qualities of a proven racer like Congaree is that his racing character is so clearly defined. In assessing the horse's attractions as a potential stallion, Adger said, "We look for a stallion with speed, and that's what most other breeders are looking for also. Fortunately, Congaree has that in spades, and he can carry his speed, as he showed in the Kentucky Derby, the Santa Anita Handicap, and again on Sunday in the Hollywood Gold Cup."

Congaree carries his speed so well that he quickly developed into a classic candidate in 2001. Winning the Wood Memorial and running very well to finish third in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness showed Congaree was a very high-class performer. Unfortunately, he wrenched an ankle when he finished third in the Jim Dandy, and Adger said that Congaree had several months off after the Jim Dandy to recuperate: "We sent him to the farm in South Carolina, and he came back well last spring."

After he returned at 4, Congaree didn't show form equal to his best efforts in 2001 until he won the Cigar Mile in November. Since then, he has won the San Pasqual, San Antonio, Carter, and Hollywood Gold Cup, as well as finishing a close second in the Santa Anita Handicap.

In terms of pedigree, Congaree has some strengths, as well as a significant hurdle to leap. Pragmatically, Adger said that for Congaree to achieve commercial acceptance, he would have to "distance himself" from being by Arazi.

"Although I really love Arazi and respect his racing ability, he was a big disappointment at stud," Adger said.

Despite that, Arazi was exceptionally pedigreed, and Congaree has solid lines elsewhere in his makeup. He is inbred 3x3 to Northern Dancer and descends from the James Cox Brady family of Epsom Oaks winner Long Look, Adger noted, pointing out that Congaree's dam, Mari's Sheba, was third in the Santa Anita Oaks to Serena's Song.

"Mari's Sheba was one of three key mares in the Elmendorf package when we purchased it, along with Halory and Ziggy's Act," he said. "She's proven to be a tremendous acquisition and an important element in our broodmare band."

Mari's Sheba produced a Thunder Gulch filly this year, and her yearling is a filly by Coronado's Quest. She is not in foal for next year. Adger noted that Congaree's half-sisters "will go into our racing stable and eventually will come back to Stonerside."