Minutes after Congaree had won the 2001 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, Bob McNair, who owns the horse as well as the Houston Texans, took a call from his new football coach, Dom Capers.
“I sure wish we could draft a running back who runs like that horse,” Capers said.
That was 19 races and almost three years ago, and Congaree still is running. The day before the Super Bowl in Reliant Stadium, where McNair’s Texans play, Congaree will run at Santa Anita, trying to win the San Antonio Handicap for the second consecutive year. Since the stake was first run, in 1935, only Gun Bow, in 1964 and ’65, and Gentlemen, in 1997 and ’98, have pulled off that feat.
Richard Mandella, who trained Gentlemen, will try to block Congaree’s path today with Pleasantly Perfect, making his first start since his upset victory at 14-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita three months ago.
A Breeders’ Cup victory would have shoehorned Congaree into serious contention for horse of the year. As it was, he finished fourth, after leading at the top of the stretch. While Congaree and Medaglia d’Oro were duking it out, Pleasantly Perfect passed them both and won by 1 1/2 lengths. Congaree finished second in two Eclipse Award votes. He was second to Mineshaft for horse of the year and best older horse. He never raced against Mineshaft, who didn’t run in the Breeders’ Cup because of an ankle injury.
The Breeders’ Cup didn’t end Congaree’s year. A month later, in late November, McNair’s horse repeated as winner of the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct. Had there been an award for versatility and adaptability, Congaree would have been hard to top. He raced at five tracks, in California, New York and Kentucky, and scored his five victories at different distances -- 7 furlongs, a mile, 1 1/16, 1 1/8 and 1 1/4 miles. He finished third, behind Aldebaran and Cajun Beat, in the Eclipse voting for best sprinter.
Racetrack operators should be indebted to McNair for keeping Congaree in training as a 6-year-old. It is horses of his ilk that could lead McNair to the Kentucky Derby winner’s circle before the Texans, who started two years ago, win a Super Bowl.
Bob and Janice McNair, who own Stonerside Farm near Paris, Ky., have already had a whiff of Churchill Downs’ roses. The couple shared an interest in Strodes Creek, who finished second to Go For Gin in the 1994 Derby. As a partner with Frank Stronach, they won the 1997 Belmont with Touch Gold, who denied Silver Charm a Triple Crown sweep.
After his win in the 2001 Wood, Congaree finished third in the Derby.
The year before, the McNairs ran ninth with War Chant in Louisville, in a Derby that was won by Fusaichi Pegasus, a colt they co-bred with Arthur B. Hancock III and sold at auction for $4 million.
Although he won the Hollywood Gold Cup at 1 1/4 miles, Congaree is returning to his best distance -- 1 1/8 miles -- in the San Antonio. Congaree runs well at Santa Anita, but so does Pleasantly Perfect, who has posted four of his six wins at the track. For the McNairs, who will watch today on TV from Houston, this is not the Super Bowl, but it could be a timely warmup for the big game in their hometown.
Before jockey Pat Valenzuela brought on a suspension by failing to report to Santa Anita stewards for a drug test, he hired Corey Black as his agent.
“Through a mutual friend, I have been told Pat’s OK,” Black said Friday. “His [possible] reinstatement runs a distant second to his health and well-being, as far as I’m concerned.”