- The Washington Times - Friday, May 18, 2001

BALTIMORE Bob Baffert considers tomorrow's 126th Preakness Stakes the "fun race" of the Triple Crown. Too bad it has never been much fun for the California trainer after he loses the Kentucky Derby.
Baffert enters Congaree (5-2) and Point Given (3-1) against Derby winner Monarchos (2-1), but rebounding from a Derby loss hasn't been Baffert's forte.
The trainer followed his Derby wins in 1997 and 1998 by capturing the Preakness with Silver Charm and Real Quiet, respectively before losing both years in the Belmont Stakes. Following a Derby loss, he has never won the Preakness or the Belmont and is 0-4 overall in the Belmont. Cavonnier (1996) and Captain Steve (2000) both placed fourth in the Preakness after Derby losses; Excellent Meeting (1999) didn't finish.
Baffert's backers will be torn, though. It seems as if he's a virtual lock to take the Preakness after winning the Derby but has no chance at Pimlico otherwise. However, Congaree is considered an improving horse after being nosed out for second in the Derby. And Point Given, the Derby favorite, could easily rebound from a fifth-place finish. The Preakness figures to be won by Monarchos, Congaree or Point Given, and Baffert trains two so his streak of bad luck after Derby losses might end.
"I wouldn't have brought [Point Given] if I thought he would run the same race," he said. "We're all sort of puzzled. You just put it behind."
Point Given was the 9-5 Derby choice after winning three straight, including the Santa Anita Derby on April 7. The 3-year-old son of Thunder Gulch won five of eight career starts with three runner-up finishes before his worst career effort, when he seemingly never took to the Churchill Downs surface.
But the Preakness has been won by beaten Derby favorites like Snow Chief (1986), Hansel (1991), Prairie Bayou (1993) and Timber Country (1995). Bettors easily could back Point Given under that "Bounce Theory," which has worked four times in 10 races.
Congaree is considered the better of Baffert's horses, though. He was a long shot to live, much less race. He suffered five broken ribs during birth that forced the Arazi offspring to spend his first 45 days in a stall. He caught pneumonia a few months later and chipped a knee in his first start, forcing a five-month layoff.
But Congaree won three straight upon returning. A dominating victory over Monarchos in the Wood Memorial on April 14 made Congaree one of the top Derby contenders although he had only four career races. However, Congaree was sucked into the fastest early pace in Derby history and tired in the final eighth mile, finishing third. If the pace had been slower, Congaree would have been in perfect position in the final turn.
"That the fractions were just so fast in the Derby is the only reason he didn't win there," owner Bob McNair said. "We respect Monarchos, but we've beaten him before, and Congaree has terrific speed if we just get him to relax. I think he's competitive with these horses. Congaree can handle the narrow turns and shorter stretch."
Congaree's development hasn't gone unnoticed by rival horsemen. Monarchos trainer John Ward worries that the addition of two-time Preakness-winning jockey Jerry Bailey will make Congaree even tougher.
"The Derby may have been an over-the-top race for him, but the addition of Jerry Bailey makes him very dangerous," Ward said. "The limiting factor of Congaree is he's had to perform at the top level for the last 2* months. We're still the best horse, but Jerry will make it more of a tactical situation."
Baffert downplayed the change in riders, saying Victor Espinosa rode Congaree well in the Derby despite moving the colt early.
"The horse will stay in the East, so we wanted to reunite him with Bailey," Baffert said. "Maybe Jerry can get something done. Jerry's the No. 1 guy. He doesn't get excited. He's very cool, steady, does his homework."
By McNair's calculations, a more reasonable early pace would benefit Congaree.
"If the early fractions are :23 and :46 [seconds over the first half-mile], we have an outstanding chance of winning," McNair said. "We'll be on the lead coming into the stretch, and Monarchos won't run us down. But if we run :22 and :44, it will be tough."


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