Congaree dusts off Wood field

Big win has Baffert sitting even prettier

Monarchos 2 3/4 back

April 15, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - Congaree entered the $750,000 Wood Memorial Stakes an untested colt with storybook beginnings. He exited a Kentucky Derby contender nearly on a par with his stablemate, Point Given.

A chestnut son of Arazi, Congaree dominated a field of six yesterday in the 77th renewal of New York's major Kentucky Derby prep. He won by 2 3/4 lengths over Monarchos, the 4-5 favorite.

Congaree completed the 1 1/8 miles in 1 minute 47 4/5 seconds, matching the time of last year's winner, Fusaichi Pegasus, the eventual Kentucky Derby victor.

Congaree gives his trainer Bob Baffert two strong contenders for the Derby on May 5 at Churchill Downs. Baffert's Point Given romped in the Santa Anita Derby last weekend at Santa Anita Park, Baffert's base in Southern California.

"We know we're looking good," said Baffert, who has won Kentucky Derbies and Preaknesses with Silver Charm and Real Quiet. "But we've got three weeks to go. Things change day to day."

A strapping son of the 1991 Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, Congaree had raced only three times, all in California, before flying East to test his mettle in the Wood. Bettors liked his chances. He was the 8-5 second choice behind Monarchos.

"We knew he was good," Baffert said of Congaree. "But was he really, really good, as we thought he was? Today he showed he is."

He is also lucky. A large colt, Congaree suffered two broken ribs and three fractured ribs at birth. He spent his first 45 days in his stall. When he was weaned, he caught pneumonia. When Baffert started training him last year at Saratoga, he required surgery to remove a chip in his knee.

His owner and breeder, Robert McNair of Stonerside Stable, said everyone associated with Congaree has a soft spot for the courageous colt.

"So many people handled him that he's a people-oriented horse," said McNair, who is also owner of the Houston Texans, a National Football League team set to begin next year. "He has a wonderful disposition."

Congaree's superiority in the Wood was never in doubt. He broke sharply behind the tightly wound speedster Richly Blended. They ran one-two down the backstretch. Carrying his California jockey, Victor Espinoza, Congaree accelerated around the far turn, overwhelmed Richly Blended and then coasted home unchallenged.

Monarchos broke tardily and never seemed to relish the surface. He languished in fifth until the final turn, when his jockey, Jorge Chavez asked him to run. The gray son of Maria's Mon sped past horses on the inside. But when confronted with Congaree's lead in the stretch, he chased at less than full throttle.

That suited his trainer. John Ward Jr. said before the race he did not want a gut-wrenching effort so close to the Kentucky Derby. Afterward, he said that Monarchos made up ground on a speed-favoring surface and galloped out strongly at the end.

"No complaints," Ward said. "A mile and a quarter in three weeks. I'm ready for it."

Ward said that if Monarchos had tried to catch Congaree, a highly unlikely proposition, he would have come back "a pretty wobbly legged horse. ... The first Saturday in May. This was a scrimmage."

Congaree paid $5.40 to win and headed a $10 exacta. Richly Blended, the 7-2 third choice, finished third, seven lengths behind Monarchos. The trifecta returned $21.

Rick Wilson, the Maryland-based jockey of Richly Blended, said that his saddle slipped around the first turn, preventing him from controlling his colt's blistering speed. Undefeated in three races before the Wood, the New York-based Richly Blended won his first two at Laurel Park.

"The colt tried his heart out," Wilson said.

But the spotlight shone on Congaree, prompting his trainer to say: "I hope on the first Saturday in May he looks as good and feels as great as he did today."

NOTES: Skip To The Stone cruised to a 1 3/4 -length victory in the Grade III, $150,000 Bay Shore Stakes, passing under the wire in 1:22.46 after seven furlongs. Trained in California by Mike Mitchell, he paid $8.50 to win. Multiple Choice and Friday's A Comin' finished second and third, respectively. The even-money favorite City Zip finished fourth. ...

The 7-year-old Say Florida Sandy captured the $109,200 Bold Ruler Handicap, a Grade III sprint, for his 25th victory in 70 races. He completed the six furlongs in 1:08.67 and paid $10.40 to win. Delaware Township, the 3-2 favorite, was squeezed back in the turn and finished second. Lake Pontchartrain rallied for third.

Winners' circle

Winners of yesterday's Kentucky Derby prep races: Wood Memorial: Congaree Blue Grass: Millennium Wind Arkansas Derby: Balto Star Calif. Derby: Takin It Deep

Coverage: [Page 14e]

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