Lone Star Park Race Report: Starlight

Published in the June 1 issue of The Blood-Horse
Congaree put the questions and the rivals behind him immediately. The questions about his readiness and level of performance he tossed aside like dirty laundry. And he simply snubbed proven stakes performers such as Reba's Gold, Freedom Crest, Mr. John, and Valhol as though they were disreputable acquaintances looking for a soft touch.

Horse racing's handicap division, which has seemed a watt or two shy of star power this season, just got a jolt. Congaree is back. On Memorial Day in Grand Prairie, Texas, while making his first start in more than nine months, Congaree announced his return by winning the $300,000 Lone Star Park Handicap (gr. III).

The handicap was the richest of seven stakes on what was billed as Lone Star Million Day. Rain fell most of the afternoon, but it hardly dampened spirits. Many in the crowd of 18,081 swarmed around Congaree's trainer, Bob Baffert, as if he were a rock star. They asked for autographs and photographs, and Baffert, ever insouciant, obliged. But, of course, even before the race, he knew the answers to the questions.

Congaree has star power, too. When the horses came onto the track for the featured race, a few fans called out Congaree's name. Was it charisma that mesmerized them or some longing to lose themselves in the glow of a star? Despite the layoff and his facing older horses for the first time, the crowd made Congaree 4-5. And many called out his name again when the horses ran by the grandstand for the first time. He didn't disappoint them.

Congaree bobbled slightly at the start, but quickly recovered to assume control. In the relentless dripping rain and over a wet surface that was nevertheless officially "fast," he sped to a clear early advantage of 2 1/2 lengths. He led the field of older horses through the opening half-mile in :46.52 and through the first six furlongs in 1:11.05.

With Hall of Fame jockey Pat Day sitting motionless in the saddle, Congaree's advantage began to diminish in the second turn. Freedom Crest, L.A. Spider Legs, and Reba's Gold all gained on the leader and momentarily seemed to threaten. But this was Day and Congaree, and the threat was only specious. Congaree, as though sensing their presence, ran clear again.

In the stretch, Prince Iroquois, a 48-1 shot, rallied strongly and boldly, as if to suggest he was going to author one of the biggest upsets in Lone Star Park history. But with a few left-handed taps of the whip, Day encouraged Congaree, and again the big chestnut colt spurted clear, stopping the teletimer at 1:42.96 after the 1 1/16 miles.

"He stumbled a little bit right at the break," Day explained, "and broke into the (number) two horse (Mr. John). I grabbed him to help him, and when he got on his feet, he jumped right into the race. And it was all his from there on. He responded very nicely off the turn when the horses ran to him and galloped down to the wire the way he was supposed to."

With the victory, his fifth in nine career starts, Congaree earned $180,000 for his owner and breeder, the Stonerside Stable of Janice and Robert McNair. The son of Arazi has earned $1,243,400 in his career. Stonerside Farm is located near Paris, Ky., but the McNairs' principal residence is Houston. Robert McNair also owns the newest NFL franchise, the Houston Texans.

The Lone Star Park Handicap was Congaree's first race since finishing third in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. I) last August at Saratoga, where he "wrenched" a knee, according to Stonerside racing manager John Adger. Prior to the Jim Dandy, of course, Congaree had won the Swaps (gr. I) and the Wood Memorial (gr. II) and had finished third in both the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness Stakes (gr. I). Adger explained that Congaree had resumed training in December at the McNairs' training center in Aiken, S.C. And he traveled to Lone Star after a series of eye-catching workouts at Churchill Downs.

"He runs a lot like War Emblem," Baffert said, referring, of course, to this year's winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. "Congaree just wants to put it to them...That's the way he wants to run. He's a tough horse. Once he gets in the lead, that's the only time he can relax."

Congaree wasn't "really tight," Baffert said, for the Lone Star race, which he had hoped would be a "soft" spot for a comeback. "I was a little worried he was going to come up a little heavy," Baffert explained. "But this horse won on his own. I had him fit enough to go about a mile. That last sixteenth was all heart and class."

Baffert called the Lone Star Park Handicap a starting point, a perfect place to begin what's expected to be an eventful and successful campaign, the next step being the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) on June 15 at Churchill Downs. But first Congaree had to redefine himself as a top racehorse, dispel those questions, and dismiss those rivals.

At the wire
A 29-1 shot rose from the bottom of the claiming ranks and upset many of the fastest fillies in the region in the $100,000 Valid Expectations Stakes. Prized Amberpro provided the biggest surprise of Lone Star Million Day. Claimed last year for $10,000, Prized Amberpro rallied through the stretch to defeat Hattiesburg by three-quarters of a length, with Hallowed Dreams, who had won 25 of 29 starts, another three-quarters of a length back in third... Legislator, the even-money favorite, fractured his right foreleg in the first turn of the Diamond A USA Stakes, which was won by Regiment. Jockey Robby Albarado quickly pulled up Legislator, who left the course in the horse ambulance. In explaining the severity of the injury, Bill Clifton of Waco, Texas, who owns the colt, said, "He'll never race again." The fracture was not displaced and did not, for the moment, appear to threaten the horse's life. Legislator had earned $143,626 and won the Crown Royal American Turf Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Churchill Downs in his previous outing.

(Chart, Equibase)