Aqueduct Race Report: The Conqueror

Aqueduct Race Report: The Conqueror
Photo: AP/NYRA: Adam Coglianese
Congaree wins Cigar Mile.
Published in the Dec. 7 issue of The Blood-Horse
For George Bailey, it was "a wonderful life." For Jerry Bailey, life has been pretty wonderful as well. Although Jerry Bailey has not been visited by any angels, at least none we're aware of, that doesn't mean someone's not watching over him.

At a time when he was searching desperately for live mounts in an attempt to break Mike Smith's single-season record for stakes victories, not to mention his own single-season earnings record, who should come roaring into town for the Cigar Mile (gr. I) but Congaree.

In the spring of 2001, Bailey had an opportunity to ride Stonerside Stable's exciting 3-year-old in the Wood Memorial (gr. II) and Triple Crown races. But he and agent Ron Anderson elected to ride another promising 3-year-old, Hero's Tribute, in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) instead. Congaree's trainer, Bob Baffert, all but begged Bailey and Anderson to ride his lightly raced colt. But Bailey had been working Hero's Tribute in Florida, and they felt obligated to stick with him. When Congaree knocked off Hero's Tribute's more prominent stablemate, Monarchos, in the Wood, and Hero's Tribute barely picked his feet up in the Blue Grass, Bailey was not a happy camper.

Anderson tried to land the mount on Congaree in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), but Baffert said, "That bus has already left town." Two weeks later, Bailey managed to catch up with the bus in Baltimore, but he stayed on for only one stop, and, after a third-place finish in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I), Bailey and Congaree parted company.

It is now some 18 months later, and Bailey is within close striking range of both records. With everything hinging on the Thanksgiving weekend stakes extravaganza in New York and California, Bailey and Anderson, as expected, hopped aboard the Bobby Frankel Express, as it too was in hot pursuit of a record--D. Wayne Lukas' single season earnings of $17,842,358. Bailey landed the mounts on the Frankel-trained Sightseek in the Nov. 29 Top Flight Handicap (gr. II), Empire Maker in the Nov. 30 Remsen Stakes (gr. II), and Summer Scene in the Nov. 30 Demoiselle Stakes (gr. II), then flew to California for the following day's Matriarch Stakes (gr. IT) and Hollywood Derby (gr. IT), where he would ride Frankel's Banks Hill and Royal Gem, respectively.

The key race for Bailey in New York was the $350,000 Cigar Mile, a race he had won three times. Frankel had promised the mount on Aldebaran to Jorge Chavez, so Anderson went to the nominations list to see who else might be available. Leaping off the page was none other than Congaree, who was coming to the end of what was considered a disappointing year.

After being sidelined for almost 10 months with a wrenched knee, Congaree returned looking like a million bucks and was being considered by many as a potential Horse of the Year candidate. But all he had to show for himself by late fall were workmanlike victories in the Lone Star Park Handicap (gr. III) and Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II). It was hoped to get him to the NetJets Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT), but a seventh-place finish in the Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IIT), his first attempt on grass, aborted those plans.

Following the Oak Tree, Congaree began tearing up the track at Santa Anita, turning in six-furlong bullet works in 1:09 4/5 and 1:10 1/5, as well as a bullet seven-furlong work in 1:24 1/5.

Anderson's mouth began to water. Was it possible Bailey could once again catch up with the bus? Anderson text-messaged Baffert inquiring about his plans for Congaree, and Baffert replied he was considering the Nov. 30 Cigar Mile, the Nov. 29 Clark Handicap (gr. II) at Churchill Downs, and the Dec. 7 NTRA Great State Challenge Classic at Sam Houston Race Park.

"To be honest," Anderson told Baffert, "the Cigar Mile is not drawing the best bunch of horses. The horse to beat is Crafty C.T. (who was coming off a third in the NAPA Breeders' Cup Sprint, gr. I). That got his attention."

According to Anderson, Baffert told him he wasn't worried about Crafty C.T., because he wasn't the type that takes a lot of racing. "He told me Congaree was training lights out and was doing great," Anderson said. "I spoke with him a couple of times a day, and he decided to come to New York. He called me before the race and told me to tell Jerry to watch the horse in the gate, that he was a little clumsy leaving there and had been stumbling a little. Those were the only instructions he gave."

Baffert sent Congaree to Belmont three days before the Nov. 30 race, accompanied only by groom Roberto Luna. The horse was bedded down in the barn of John Terranova, whose wife, Tonja, has been the New York custodian for Baffert's horses for the past several years. All Baffert told her was that Congaree was doing "awesome."

When Congaree's owners Robert and Janice McNair and racing and breeding manager John Adger were forced to remain in Texas due to bad weather, it left the son of Arazi without any representation. For McNair, he had already upset the New York Giants with his new NFL franchise, the Houston Texans, the week before, and was hoping to take another bite out of the Big Apple with Congaree.

A field of eight went to the post, with Red Bullet and Crafty C.T. both 3-1. Aldebaran was 4-1, with Congaree 9-2 and Bonapaw 5-1 in the wide-open betting race. But that was the only thing wide-open about the Cigar.

Congaree, as Baffert had predicted, was sluggish away from the gate, but Bailey quickly put him in contention, just behind the pacesetting Bonapaw and Crafty C.T. Pat Valenzuela, on Crafty C.T., for some reason gave up his position over the speed-favoring track and dropped back to fifth between horses, as Congaree took up a stalking position, just off Bonapaw's flank. After fractions of :22.48 and :44.63, Harlan's Holiday made a menacing move along the rail passing the three-eighths pole. With Crafty C.T. ready to make his move from behind, Bailey began to squeeze the trigger.

"I had to use him on the turn to kind of stuff (Crafty C.T.) from getting through," Bailey said. "I know my horse has a quick turn of foot and Crafty C.T. doesn't. Turning for home, I asked him to spurt away."

And spurt away he did. He blew by Bonapaw after three-quarters in 1:08.25, then continued to open up under an occasional left-handed whip. He came home his final quarter in :24.86 to complete the mile in a blistering 1:33.11. Aldebaran out-closed Crafty C.T. for second, with Harlan's Holiday finishing fourth.

"It was an awesome performance from him," Bailey said. "He's very deceptive. He has such a long stride, you don't know if he's giving you everything he's got. But no one was closing, so I figured I had it in the bag."

Baffert said he's not sure what the plans are for Congaree. "He's bigger and stronger now than he ever was," he said. "I'd like to leave him at a mile or a mile and a sixteenth. We've got some serious bragging rights now."

So does Bailey, who had caught up with his missed bus and rode it to his 64th stakes victory of the year, three short of Smith's record. No one reported after the race seeing wings sprouting from Ron Anderson's back, but you can understand if Bailey claims to be the exception.

Continued...

(Chart, Equibase)

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