Congaree Can Join NY Legends in Met Mile

Congaree Can Join NY Legends in Met Mile
Photo: Benoit
Congaree, seeks Carter-Met Mile double.
(from NYRA release)
It ooked like Congaree had hit bottom when he hit the finish line ahead of only one horse in last summer's Oak Tree Mile. It was, after all, his third disappointing loss of the season.

Congaree had put forth some big performances thanks to his speed, class and gameness, such as his electrifying victory in the Wood Memorial (gr. I) at Aqueduct in 2001, so trainer Bob Baffert was not ready to quit on him.

Hoping a return to Aqueduct would help get the colt back on track, Baffert sent Congaree to the Big A in late November for the Cigar Mile (gr. I). Congaree overpowered an outstanding field while turning in one of the year's most impressive races.

Since then, it's been nothing but smoothing sailing for the 5-year-old son of Arazi.

Having already established an affinity for New York tracks, Congaree returns to the Big Apple as the 124-pound highweight and horse to beat in Monday's Memorioal Day feature, the $750,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I).

Always a fan favorite, this year's "Met Mile" drew a field of eight including Aldebaran, runner-up to Congaree in both the Cigar Mile and Carter Handicap and Najran, a colt who shattered Belmont's eight-furlong track record in the May 7 Westchester.

Also on the card is the $100,000 Jaipur Handicap (gr. IIIT) for 3-year-olds and up at seven furlongs on the turf.

Ten races have been carded for Monday, with a first race post time of 1 p.m. Eastern. Post time for the Met Mile, carded as the ninth race, is 5:16 p.m. Post time for the Jaipur, the day's co-feature, is 4:44 p.m.

Congaree, who drew post 7 under Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens, arrived in New York on Friday afternoon. In his last appearance, he toyed with fellow Met Mile entrants and grade I winners Aldebaran and Peeping Tom en route to a convincing victory in Aqueduct's Carter (g. I), which was the third grade I victory of his career.

Only 10 horses -- Glorifier, Jack Atkin, King Saxon, Devil Diver, Tom Fool, In Reality, Czaravich, Gulch, Langfuhr and Wild Rush -- have won the prestigious Carter and Met Mile handicaps in the same year. Gallorette and Forgeo won both races in different years. Needless to say, the odds-on Congaree has a big chance to join a select group of horses on Memorial Day.

"He's really shown signs of greatness," said Baffert, who plans on watching the Met Mile at home in California, while longtime friend Tonja Terranova will saddle the horse at Belmont Park. "He was an awesome 3-year-old, kind of had a sub-par 4-year-old season and has just put everything together this year. He's just matured and he's very sound. The `sheet' guys keep waiting for him to bounce. I don't see it happening."

Baffert is no stranger to great horses. Over the last decade, he has trained some of the game's most visible stars including Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Silverbulletday and the 2001 Horse of the Year, Point Given. Point Given won the 2001 Santa Anita Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Haskell and Travers before an injury prematurely ended his career.

"I don't like comparing my horses, but Congaree is right up there with Point Given," Baffert said. "At a mile, he's the best horse I've ever trained."

Congaree, a three-time graded stakes winner this year, encountered his first muddy track in the seven-furlong Carter, which he ran in a blistering 1:21 2/5. He'll likely face a similar surface in the Met Mile with rain forecast on both Sunday and Monday.

Belmont's main track was a sea of slop for both the Friday and Saturday cards as well.

"He proved he could win in the mud," Baffert said. "He's answered all my questions."

Stonerside Stable bred and owns Congaree, who is a head shy of owning a five-race winning streak. Congaree will deservedly spot his foes five to 11 pounds in the Met Mile.

Flaxman Stable's Aldebaran finished a clear-cut second behind Swept Overboard in last year's Metropolitan Handicap and always fires a big shot. Unfortunately, he may wind up second best this time around with Congaree in the race. Aldebaran has squared off against Congaree twice, finishing second to him in both the 2002 Cigar Mile and aforementioned Carter Handicap six weeks ago.

"I was hoping Congaree would carry more weight," said trainer Bobby Frankel. "Aldebaran is a good horse. He always shows up. A lot of people think he's better as a 5-year-old this year, but I think he's the same horse he was last year. He just had bad luck. He ran in a few races where there was no pace. The only race he didn't finish first or second, a horse broke down in front of him."

Aldebaran, who packs a strong late punch, enters the Met Mile off a 2 ½-length victory over 11 rivals in the Churchill Downs Handicap (gr. II). Three weeks earlier he rallied strongly to finish second behind Congaree in the seven-furlong Carter. Aldebaran will have another 200 yards to play with in the Met Mile, but Frankel doesn't think it is much of an advantage.

"I wouldn't have beaten Congaree in the Carter if that was a mile," he said.

Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey retains the mount on Aldebaran. They break from post 6, while receiving five pounds from Congaree.

Buckram Oak Farm's Najran equaled Dr. Fager's North American dirt record for a mile when easily winning the Westchester Handicap (gr. III) at Belmont on opening day May 7. This is a much tougher spot. Trained by Nick Zito, Najran figures prominently from the start under jockey Edgar Prado. He carries 116 pounds.

$750,000 Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I), 3 & up, 1 mile
PP Horse, Wt., Jockey, ML Odds
1. Saarland(L), 114, Velazquez, John, 8-1
2. Peeping Tom(L), 114, Bridgmohan, Shaun, 10-1
3. Najran(L), 116, Prado, Edgar, 5-1
4. Proud Citizen(L), 116, Chavez, Jorge F, 15-1
5. Wake At Noon(L), 115, Ramsammy, Emile, 20-1
6. Aldebaran(L), 119, Bailey, Jerry D, 3-1
7. Congaree(L), 124, Stevens, Gary, 1-1
8. Justification(L), 113, Castellano, Javier, 30-1

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