Hollywood Park Report: King Cong

Hollywood Park Report: King Cong
Photo: AP/Benoit Photo
It was supposed to be a midsummer classic, but gradually, the contenders began to fall away, dwindling Hollywood Park's $500,000 Swaps Stakes (gr. I) on July 15 to a mere shell of its early potential. There was no Point Given. No Millennium Wind. No Crafty C.T. or even Hero's Tribute. And the biggest bomb of them all came last. There was no pace.

"Put it this way," jockey Gary Stevens said later on. "If they let him go twenty-three, forty-five and four, they weren't beating me, and we went twenty-five, forty-nine? There was no way. No way. Not with those fractions."

Someone should have been thrown a towel after the first furlong. No, grass wasn't growing faster, nor was paint drying quicker. But in a matter of seconds, the 1 1/8-mile Swaps morphed from an engaging battle to a total slam-dunk, sharpening the old saw that pace truly makes the race -- and then some.

At least the winner was legitimate.

Congaree's work in Aqueduct's Wood Memorial (gr. II) in April left him one to reckon with in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). As it was, the son of Arazi got caught up in a vicious speedfest at Churchill Downs, yet he still had enough guts to hang tough late. Then in the Preakness (gr. I), he was hooked early by the sprinter Richly Blended, who was nothing more than "a thorn in his side" in the eyes of trainer Bob Baffert. He ran third both times.

Weary but not defeated, Congaree was returned to his Santa Anita quarters -- "I wasn't going to run him in the Belmont regardless," Baffert admitted. "It's too far for him" -- and in no time the sleek chestnut was back in the groove. A trio of bullet works leading up to the Swaps told Baffert all he needed to know.

And then they handed it to him on a platter. The opening quarter, which elapsed in a dawdling :25.15, spoke volumes. Amazingly, Stevens and Congaree managed to pull off a second quarter in :24.22, then simply spit dirt in the face of Until Sundown, springing to a clear lead going into the far turn.

To his credit, Until Sundown played the brave upstart, trying to get back in it heading for home. But it was a terribly uphill battle, for the damage had long been done. Congaree opened right back up, waltzing under the wire by a comfy four lengths. Jamaican Rum, the single-minded Cal-bred, closed with his usual flair, but the (lack of) pace cost him dearly as well. He narrowly missed Until Sundown for second. Top Hit was another half-length away in fourth.

Was the Swaps a fair assessment of Congaree's dominance or just an afternoon workout plus bonuses? More will be known when the Stonerside Stable homebred reaches for bigger prizes later this summer. Some, however, opine that the Derby and Preakness may have exposed his essential weakness.

"Do I think a mile and an eighth is his limit?" Baffert pondered, reflecting on the colt's Triple Crown experience. "I think he can get a mile and a quarter, but it's got to be perfect, if he's the only speed horse in the race. With the right style, he can get it. He's a very good horse."


AFFLUENT'S OAKS

At first glance, the outcome of the $150,000 Hollywood Oaks (gr. II) the day before was hard to take seriously as well -- the first two across the line couldn't hold a candle to Golden Ballet this past spring, while the filly who ended up third was -- brace yourself -- a maiden. Not to mention only five even bothered to show up at all.

But wait -- there may be a silver lining yet in this ominous cloud. The nine-furlong Oaks may have finally given us a glimpse at just how special Affluent is. Bred and owned by Janis Whitham, the Affirmed filly has always had a touch of class, and by virtue of her breeding -- produced from Trinity Place, Affluent is a granddaughter of the Hall of Fame mare Bayakoa -- she would have been a star to trainer Ron McAnally even if to no one else.

What McAnally has, in fact, is a consistently improving filly who may prove versatile to star on either surface, this after Affluent won with authority in her grass debut in May. When Golden Ballet abruptly retired -- an event which broke the whole division wide open -- McAnally subsequently put Affluent back on dirt for the Princess Stakes (gr. II). Unfortunately, it was over from the start.

"What happened that day is she broke sharp, and the next thing you know, the two horses that were supposed to be up there, they're taking back," recalled jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, who had never ridden Affluent before the Princess. "That was a shock that day, for me. She had never been on the lead before in her life, so I guess it was a shock to her, also."

Upon further review, Delahoussaye concluded Affluent needed to be covered up early. It was that chunk of knowledge gleaned that afternoon that made the difference in the Hollywood Oaks -- that and a better break.

"I told Ron, 'Look, let's hope she doesn't break sharp,' " he admitted. "And she didn't."

Instead, Affluent came out purring like a cat, giving Delahoussaye a chance to tuck her in near the rail. Down the backstretch, she began to close in on the rest, picking them off with ease on the far turn. Collect Call stayed with her for a while, but Affluent simply galloped away, winning by 2 1/2 lengths in 1:49.20. The reliable Collect Call ended up 12 lengths ahead of Secret of Mecca, a Mecke filly making just her third start.

Whether Affluent is better on the grass or the dirt remains to be seen. Look for her at Del Mar, where we may just find out.

Continued . . .

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