Congaree primed for big Derby effort

May 1, 2001 10:43 AM

Until Fusaichi Pegasus won the Kentucky Derby last year, no Derby favorite had won the race since Spectacular Bid in 1979.

Easy Goer, Arazi and Holy Bull are but three logical choices who failed during that span, and while Point Given looks like the most solid Derby favorite since The Bid, strange things happen in the Run for the Roses. The best horse doesn’t always win, but on Saturday, in the 127th classic at Churchill Downs, the best horse will.

That horse is Congaree.

From day one, trainer Bob Baffert has heralded the son of Arazi as his most talented Triple Crown prospect, calling him "a freak of nature."

That’s saying a lot, considering Baffert also trains Point Given, who overcame an unfavorable pace scenario, a track condition he didn’t necessarily favor, and the No. 1 post position to overwhelm Crafty C.T. and four other rivals in the Santa Anita Derby.

Even though Point Given is more seasoned than Congaree, Baffert is on record as saying that sometimes horses with as much potential as Congaree can achieve greatness despite their inexperience.

Conagree’s only loss came in his first race. He was sidelined soon after that with a chip in his knee, which could have accounted for the defeat. Since then, he has won four straight races, all by daylight. The colt has an effortless stride, moves with athletic grace and has yet to be tested in his victories. He should be well-placed off the pacesetters.

Congaree, named for a river in South Carolina, will have to beat his stablemate, Point Given, a huge chestnut colt with ability to match his size. He has never been worse than second in eight starts and has the services of three-time Derby winner Gary Stevens, who knows his way around the Churchill Downs oval. Congaree will be ridden by Victor Espinoza, who is making his Derby debut. Espinoza is one of the nation’s strongest riders. He will not be outmuscled in the stretch run.

Millennium Wind is an improving horse that does not have to be on the lead to win, as he was in capturing the Blue Grass Stakes. Even though he will be ridden by 54-year-old Laffit Pincay Jr., Millennium Wind has much more than a sentimental chance. While still an immature, developing 2-year-old, he was beaten only a length in the Hollywood Futurity last year by Point Given.

Jamaican Rum may lack the talent of the top three, but he has the running style to overtake tiring pace-setters and pick up a piece of the purse. He should be 20-1 or higher, and will offer good value in the exotics.

Florida Derby winner Monarchos did not benefit from the pace scenario when he finished second to Congaree in the Wood. There should be more competition on the front end in the Derby, making Monarchos the most dangerous of the starters that are not based in Southern California.

Balto Star has been impressive in two front-running victories, but he took a soft road to Louisville. Also, he is a gelding, and a gelding has not won the Derby since Clyde Van Dusen in 1929, a span of more than 70 years.

Dollar Bill looks like this year’s Menefee.

The rest of the horses, in boxing parlance, are merely "opponents."

Golden Picks:
Point Given,
Millennium Wind
Jamaican Rum.

Eddie D. wants to sip rum from Derby Cup

Eddie Delahoussaye is a realist.

He’s the first to admit that Point Given is the horse to beat in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby. But the Hall of Fame rider also is an optimist.

He knows he can’t win the race if he’s not in it, and he’s in it on a longshot named Jamaican Rum, a California-bred son of Exemplary Leader who should find the 1¼-mile distance to his liking. After all, the gray colt has never failed to make up ground in the stretch in any of his eight races, save for his final race as a 2-year-old, something called the Texan Juvenile.

This will be Delahoussaye’s 12th Derby. He has won two, aboard Gato Del Sol in 1982 and Sunny’s Halo in 1983. Gato Del Sol, trained by the late Eddie Gregson, won by 2½ lengths from the No. 18 post-position at 21-1 odds.

Delahoussaye, plagued with sinus problems that have curtailed his travel on planes during an illustrious career that includes more than 6,000 victories, is looking forward to the Derby.

"I had been riding Crafty C.T. and he’s not going, and I’ve won two stakes on Jamaican Rum," Delahoussaye said. "Jim (trainer Jim Cassidy) decided to run him in the Arkansas Derby, so I said I’d like to go ride him, because he ran third to Point Given (in the San Felipe) and only got beat four lengths, so I figured let’s take a shot in Arkansas.

"He ran a creditable race, considering he ducked at the eighth pole. I don’t know why (Cassidy said he ducked in at the harrow marks on the track). The winner (Balto Star) was very impressive. He went to the lead and just kept going, but I liked the way my horse ran. He’s got a legitimate chance in the Derby, if he fires back to what he did in Arkansas or even improves a couple of a lengths.

"This horse is similar to Gato Del Sol, but Gato was much more businesslike. Jamaican Rum can’t duck in or make a mistake in the Derby. The horse has to focus. Gato won coming from way out of it and won from the auxiliary gate. He was a one-run horse, where Sunny’s Halo could be placed anywhere. He was always in the heat of the battle and ran a tremendous race that day.

"But I think Jamaican Rum has a chance. That’s why I’m going. I like his running style and I like his endurance. The way he ran in Arkansas, the way he was moving, if he hadn’t have ducked, he wouldn’t have won, but he would have been at least two lengths closer (than the 4½ lengths he was beaten).

"Let’s face it. You’ve got to beat Point Given. If he runs his race, everybody’s running for second. But you never know. When Derby day comes, it’s which one’s good on that day. Point Given might have an off day, other horses might have good days, so Jamaican Rum has a legitimate chance and it’s exciting for me to be going back."

With his last Derby win coming 18 years ago, it’s been a long time between drinks for the 49-year-old Delahoussaye, a native of New Iberia, La., which is only a few furlongs from Churchill Downs as the crow flies.

"It would be great to win another Derby, sure," said Delahoussaye, who is eager to see his old friends in the Blue Grass State. "When you get up in age you appreciate it more. I don’t know if winning another Derby would mean more to me now, though. I think it meant more winning the first one. The first one means everything. I don’t think you can top that. But it would be something special to win it at this point in my career."

Delahoussaye’s easy manner, folksy Cajun accent and quaint sense of humor make him popular with the media. His cool, no-nonsense riding style and out-of-the-clouds finishes have made him immensely popular with fans. But because of his sinus woes, rumors of his retirement have persisted in recent years, despite Eddie’s public denials.

"My health’s good right now," Delahoussaye said. "If I stay healthy, I’m going to continue riding. I had a good meet at Santa Anita. In the past, my sinuses have bothered me when I flew, but the last few years, I have it pretty much monitored and under control. That’s why I can travel. It hasn’t been that I didn’t want to travel in the past; I couldn’t.

"Years ago, I’d fly and I’d get sick, so it was no fun. Now I can fly and I haven’t been getting sick, knock on wood."

THE HOMESTRETCH: Delahoussaye will leave California Thursday to ride Quick Tip Friday in the Kentucky Oaks for trainer Neil Howard . . . Former Santa Anita and Del Mar racing secretary Tom Knust will become Kent Desormeaux’s agent when the jockey returns from Japan, where he presently is riding and acting as "speech therapist" for his 2-year-old son, Jacob, who was born deaf. "I’m looking forward to it," said Knust. "He’s a great rider, one of the best. He could be back when Del Mar opens (July 18) or as early as June 10 to ride the last part of the Hollywood meet." . . . No doubt about which trainer Bill Spawr is rooting for in the Derby. It’s 54-year-old Laffit Pincay Jr., who rides Millennium Wind. Spawr has never wavered in his loyalty to Pincay, even several years ago when Laffit won only two races in 27 days during an Oak Tree meet. "I’m finally glad that he’s riding a legitimate horse in the Derby," Spawr said. "He deserves it. I just don’t understand why people don’t use him more. It’s the age, I think." Pincay, meanwhile, would prefer Derby starters to be in the race on merit. In a classic as important as the Derby, with traffic usually as thick as Angelina Jolie’s lips, he says hapless maidens such as Tincin shouldn’t be allowed in to clutter up the field. In seven starts, Tincin has been beaten nearly 130 lengths, an average of more than 18 per race, and earned $390 . . . The license plate on Pincay’s $50,000 blue Porsche Boxster convertible, presented to him by Hollywood Park Dec. 10, 1999, after he broke Bill Shoemaker’s career win record with No. 8,834 reads, aptly enough, "8834+."