Stonerside Stable's strong favorite Congaree won the $350,000 Cigar Mile (gr. I) for the second year in a row and gave jockey Jerry Bailey his third consecutive stakes victory at Aqueduct Saturday.
Bailey guided Congaree, racing between horses into the turn, to the front and fended off a determined Midas Eyes in the stretch before drawing away to win by 5 1/4 lengths in 1:34 1/5. It was Bailey's record 70th stakes win in 2003. Toccet was third, 8 1/4 lengths behind the winner at odds of 26-1.
The Bob-Baffert trained Congaree, winning for the first time since a three-length triumph in the Hollywood Gold Cup in July, broke alertly and was just off the early pace set by Well Fancied, who covered the opening quarter-mile in 22 4/5. Midas Eyes soon assumed control with Congaree on his heels while racing between horses. Midas Eyes went a half-mile in :44 2/5 and six furlongs in 1:08 3/5. Toccet raced wide while chasing the pace and tired in the stretch.
Bailey and Congaree teamed for a 5 1/2-length win in last year's Cigar, making Congaree the first back-toback winner of the prestigious race. They won last year's race in a time of 1:33.
"He's a wonderful horse," Bailey said. "I've always enjoyed riding him and I've always gotten along with him well. I figured I would be in good shape if I didn't get shuffled back and they didn't close the door on me. The track wasn't as glib as it was a year or two ago. I thought it was a second or two slower today. He feels better now than he did at three. As good as he is, I told them (Bob and Janice McNair, owners of Stonerside) I didn't see any reason to retire him."
Congaree is perfect in four starts at Aqueduct.
A 5-year-old Kentucky-bred homebred by Arazi-Mari's Sheba (Mari's Book), Congaree won for the fifth time in nine starts this year. He was coming off a fourth-place finish, beaten by 2 1/2 lengths after getting caught in an early speed duel, in the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) Oct. 25.
"I talked to Jerry (Bailey) yesterday and he told me he might have to use Congaree and I told him to go ahead and do what he had to do," said Baffert from California. "He trained very well since the Breeders' Cup and he was very sharp. He was going to run a good race in the Breeders' Cup before everything happened at the start.
"Midas Eyes was just cruising along in the Cigar Mile. I liked the first quarter-mile, but they really picked it up in the second quarter. Congaree likes to run on the rail, but when he straightened out in the stretch, I knew he'd win. Last year's Cigar Mile was really impressive and this was impressive, too. When you mention top milers, you have to mention Congaree. He's terrific going seven furlongs and a mile."
Congaree improved to 12-2-4 in 23 career starts while earning $210,000 for the victory. His career bankroll now stands at $3,241,400.
Baffert said he'd like to keep Congaree around a while longer.
"Mr. and Mrs. McNair wanted to see how he ran today before making a decision on his future, so I've got to wait and hear what the boss has to say," Baffert said. "I think Congaree is just getting stronger. What he did today may have helped to keep him around next year. The McNairs are in the business of racing horses and when you have a racehorse like him, you hate to see him go to the breeding shed.
"I think he should be champion sprinter. He beat Aldebaran in the Carter and I think he can go six furlongs with the best of them."
He paid $3.20, $2.60 and $2.20. Midas Eyes, the second choice in the field of seven and ridden by John Velazquez, returned $4.60 and $3.50. Toccet, Mike Luzzi aboard, showed for $5.60. The $2 exacta was worth $12.
Bowman's Band was fourth, followed by Well Fancied, New York Hero and Voodoo.