Make That A Double
With Congaree's win at the Wood, trainer Bob Baffert has two fop Derby contenders
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� 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�-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."