Make That A Double
With Congaree's win at the Wood, trainer Bob Baffert has two top
Miracle of miracles: With more than two weeks remaining before
the Kentucky Derby, that rarest and loveliest of all birds in the
Triple Crown season--simple clarity--has appeared. Last Saturday,
only one week after his imposing chestnut Point Given blew away a
hapless field of five foes in the Santa Anita Derby, trainer Bob
Baffert saddled yet another coppery wunderkind, Congaree, at the
nine-furlong Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. By the end of the 1:48 it
took him to turn left twice and win the Wood by nearly three
lengths over the Florida Derby winner, Monarchos, one thing was
absolutely clear: Whatever else happens at Churchill Downs,
Baffert will be saddling the strongest pair of stablemates to run
in the race since the Jones Boys, Ben and Jimmy, sent out
Citation and Coaltown in 1948. Citation won that year's Derby,
beating second-place Coaltown by 3 1/2 lengths, and then added the
Preakness and Belmont to win the Triple Crown.
Fifty-three years later, it would surprise no one if Baffert
pulled off a similar double whammy. "Congaree has as much talent
as Point Given," Baffert said after the Wood. "We're just going
to find out who wants it more."
If Congaree lacks the seasoning of Point Given, a giant herbivore
who fairly dwarfs his coevals, he has at least as quick a turn of
foot. Congaree surely inherited his speed from his sire, Arazi,
who looked like Pegasus himself in winning the 1991 Breeders' Cup
Juvenile, only to fold spectacularly through the stretch in the
'92 Derby. Last fall Congaree, after running sore and finishing
sixth in his lone 2000 start, had surgery for a bone chip in his
knee. Baffert, however, had him roaring back this winter at Santa
Anita, where he won a Feb. 28 maiden race by five lengths and, 17
days later, an allowance by eight.
Even as he aimed Point Given at the Santa Anita Derby, Baffert
made noises to the effect that he might have an even better beast
in the barn. "Congaree has Arazi's brilliance," Baffert says. "He
has that hellacious move. Point Given is the man, but I think
Congaree is close--and faster."
The Wood was only Congaree's fourth lifetime start--and his first
in a stakes race--and it confirmed what Baffert has been saying.
Congaree had never faced a rival as gifted as Monarchos, who had
crushed the finest 3-year-olds in Florida, but Baffert predicted,
"Unless Monarchos is a freak, we'll beat him." Congaree moved
boldly toward a very fast horse, Richly Blended, and swallowed
him whole down the backside. He held off Monarchos down the lane
as jockey Victor Espinoza beat a tattoo on his left flank.
Do not count Monarchos out in River City, however. His trainer,
John Ward Jr., did not want to take too much out of his colt to
make it to the winner's circle in the Wood. Jorge Chavez hit him
only once near the end and did not squeeze the lemon. "When
you're training for the Kentucky Derby, you're training for the
bull's-eye," Ward said. So is Baffert--and this time with two
bullets in the chamber.
Pincay Takes Blue Grass
Back in the Saddle
A doughty bay named Millennium Wind had just won last Saturday's
Blue Grass Stakes, at Keeneland Race Course, enhancing his
stature as a serious contender in this year's Kentucky Derby, but
what ensued seemed less a celebration of his triumph than a
tribute to the old, familiar rider on his back.
Of all the jockeys in the Keeneland colony--in fact, of all the
riders in the nation--none could have evoked a richer sense of
history than 54-year-old Laffit Pincay Jr. did as he steered the
Wind toward the winner's circle. He smiled almost shyly while
acknowledging the cheers that followed his 5 1/4-length victory.
Only three years ago, unable to get decent mounts, an angry
Pincay considered moving to Northern California to finish his
career. Instead, the Hall of Fame jock stayed in Southern
California. Around that time, after an eternity of starving
himself in his battle with the bulge, he took up a diet centered
on fruit and stabilized his riding weight at 117 pounds. "All he
had been eating was peanuts," says David Hofmans, Millennium
Wind's trainer. "Now he can eat one meal a day. It freed him,
changed his personality. It was amazing."
Since then Pincay has been riding like a young man, getting live
mounts and using his celebrated strength to muscle horses to the
wire. On Dec. 10, 1999, he won the 8,834th race of his then
35-year career, finally eclipsing the career record for
victories, set between 1949 and '90 by Bill Shoemaker.
Two months ago, Hofmans says, he had a startling dream "that
Laffit rode [Millennium Wind] and won the Triple Crown." At the
time, the colt's regular rider was Chris McCarron. So, when
McCarron begged off the Blue Grass to ride another horse in
California, Hofmans grabbed Pincay. The jock last won the Blue
Grass in 1974, and he had figured he would never duplicate his
only Kentucky Derby victory, aboard Swale in 1984.
"I thought for a long while that I'd never get a chance to ride a
horse like Swale again," says Pincay. "It's a dream come true."
Gelding Wins Arkansas Derby
No Sex, Thanks; Gotta Run
One of Saturday's most impressive efforts was turned in by Balto
Star, the gelding who annihilated the field in the 1 1/8-mile
Arkansas Derby, at sloppy Oaklawn Park. Breaking from the number
10 post, the 8-5 favorite led all the way. Jockey Mark Guidry
never raised his whip.
The victory was the third in a row for Balto Star, who turned in
a similarly devastating performance when he wired the field in
the 1 1/8-mile Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park in Florence, Ky., on
March 24, winning by nearly 13 lengths. The speedy bay has to be
considered a legitimate Derby contender. He has won his last
three races by a combined 29 1/2 lengths.
Such dominance didn't seem likely last September, when Balto Star
finished last in his first start, at Belmont Park. He misbehaved
so much in the post parade--he tried to mount his lead pony--that
trainer Todd Pletcher and owners Stuart and Anita Subotnick had
him gelded. Three starts later, on Jan. 1, a more focused Balto
Star broke his maiden at Aqueduct. "It made a big difference in
his attitude," Pletcher said after the Spiral. "That was the
first step in turning him around."
Balto Star's loss of virility does not bode well for him on Derby
day. The last sexless wonder to win the Run for the Roses was
Clyde Van Dusen, in 1929.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES Congaree's speed won him the Wood, but he will need stamina, too, to prevail in Louisville.