Congaree, looking to establish himself as the class of national handicap picture, trounced a solid field in Saturday's $150,000 San Pasqual Handicap (gr. II) at Santa Anita.
The 5-year-old son of Arazi ridden by Jerry Bailey disposed of Hot Market on the front end after making a bold three-wide move on the final turn. Carrying top weight of 121 pounds, he drew away to win by about six lengths.
"He was a great horse at 3, and he wasn't the same horse last year, but now we're seeing more the Congaree we expected to see," said winning trainer Bob Baffert. "He might have bought himself a trip to Dubai (for the $6 million World Cup March 22) today."
"If he's ready and there's a race, we run," Baffert said of going to Dubai. "And so that's what we're going to do. I'm not going to try and force it on him or anything like that."
"He could have gone a mile-and-a-half today," Baffert said of Congaree, who has shown distance limitations in the past. "This horse is just a phenomenal horse right now. A pretty serious horse."
Baffert won the rich Dubai race with Silver Charm in 1998 and with Captain Steve in 2000.
Congaree has put together consecutive top efforts. He won the Cigar Mile (gr. I) with Bailey in the irons by 5 1/2 lengths Nov. 30 in a time of 1:33 in his last start.
"He's a big horse," Baffert said. "He's finally filling out."
Formerly a free-running colt, Congaree also has learned to rate. Saturday, after bobbling slightly at the start, he relaxed in fourth as longshot Freedom Crest, intent to make Hot Market work, set the early fractions of :23.92 for the opening quarter-mile, :47.91 for the half and 1:11.50 for six furlongs. Hot Market edged to the lead as Freedom Crest gave way on the turn for home, but Congaree was soon gone. He came home in a final time of 1:41.04.
"Right now he's a good horse, and the fact that he's relaxing makes him even better," Bailey said. "That was very impressive. Again, I think the key to his impressive performance was relaxing as well as he did in the early part of the race. Coming off a mile race, with the quick fractions back in New York, I didn't know how successful I'd be. But with a speed horse right next to me, and one down inside as well, I thought if he would allow me to relax, it would be the plan."
Congaree earned a $90,000 winner's share for the Stonerside Stable of Robert McNair. The chestnut homebred won for the eighth time in 15 career starts and improves his career bankroll to more than $1.72 million. The victory was the first for Baffert, who won his third San Pasqual in the past five years, of the current Santa Anita meeting.
Sent off at 4-5 in the field of nine, Congaree paid $3.60, $2.80 and $2.60. Kudos, with Alex Solis riding, edged Hot Market and jockey Kent Desormeaux for the place, returning $3.60 and $2.80. Hot Market's show payoff was $4.40. Piensa Sonando closed well to be fourth.
The San Pasqual is the first race of the three-race Santa Anita Handicap series. The series continues with the $250,000 San Antonio Handicap at 1 1/8 miles on Feb. 2 and culminates with the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 1 at 1 ¼ miles.
In Saturday's $108,400 Pro Or Con Handicap for California-bred older fillies and mares, Shalini rallied from last place after six furlongs to win the one-mile turf event by a neck over Serene in Seattle.
Ridden by Corey Nakatani for his brother-in-law, trainer Craig Dollase, Shalini ran the mile on grass in 1:36.59.
Bred and owned by Briere Thoroughbreds, she is a gray 4-year-old daughter of 1994 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) winner Urgent Request. The Pro Or Con was her first stakes victory and third overall in 13 starts. Shalini returned mutuels of $9.60, $5.20 and $4.
Serene in Seattle paid $10 and $6.40 and Jenna's Joy, who led to the stretch and finished third, paid $4.60 to show.
Nicole's Pursuit, the 5-2 favorite in the field of seven, was fifth.