But as they lined up for Saturday's $250,000 San Antonio Handicap over the same course, Pleasantly Perfect hadn't run since the Classic. Congaree had posted a decisive victory in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct last November.
On that slim evidence, the punters made Congaree the odds-on favorite in the San Antonio, with Pleasantly Perfect dispatched at nearly 2-1 odds in the field of just four starters.
At the end, it was Pleasantly Perfect striding out down the lane to win by 4 lengths, with Star Cross second, Fleetstreet Dancer third and Congaree last of the bunch. Pleasantly Perfect, a 6-year-old son of Pleasant Colony, finished the 9 furlongs in 1:47.25 under Alex Solis.
"I just let him come out of the gate on his own to see how the race would unfold," Solis said. "The other three horses wanted the lead, so I decided to take back so I could save ground on the first turn. ... He was still real strong at the three-eighths pole, but I stayed relaxed to the quarter pole. From there, it was history."
Jerry Bailey, who rode Congaree, reported, "I never had any horse under me. He didn't have any spunk in the post parade. He certainly didn't act like the old Congaree today."
Trainer Richard Mandella said the successful return gives him some attractive -- and lucrative -- options, including the Santa Anita Handicap on March 6 and the Dubai World Cup on March 27.
"Whether we'll do one or both of those, we'll discuss next week," Mandella said after the San Antonio. "It will depend a lot on how the horse comes out (of this race), what kind of pressure this took out of him."
Congaree's trainer, Bob Baffert, said it was clear to him that Bailey "didn't have any horse." Baffert did not discuss plans for Congaree.
In other weekend racing:
Bluesthestandard came from just off the pace to win Sunday's $150,000 Palos Verde Handicap by 1 length over Marino Marini. Our New Recruit was third. Bluesthestandard, second to Cajun Beat in last fall's Breeders' Cup Sprint, ran 6 furlongs in 1:08.13 with Mike Smith in the irons. "He broke well and when I called on him to head for home, he just sprinted past the competition," Smith said. Added trainer Ted West, "I just think he's a better horse than he was last year. ... He thinks he's a better horse this year, too." He said Bluesthestandard, a 7-year-old American Standard gelding, will go next in the March 7 San Carlos Handicap, then the Potrero Grande on March 28. All three top finishers in the Breeders' Cup Sprint -- Cajun Beat, Bluesthestandard and Shake You Down -- now have come back to open 2004 with victories.
For the third straight year, Mystery Giver is the winner of the Fair Grounds Breeders's Cup Handicap. The 6-year-old Illinois-bred rallied from near the back of the pack to win Saturday's $125,000 renewal by a neck over Skate Away with Great Bloom third. The favorite, Warleigh, was sixth after showing the way early. Mystery Giver, a Dynaformer gelding, got the 1 1/8 mile on yielding turf in 1:51.77 with Robby Albarado riding. "I thought there was enough speed in the race that I could be patient and they would come back to me," Albarado said. Added trainer Richard Scherer, "Something about this race -- but it seems every year the spots open and he gets a perfect trip."
Sunday, Olmodavor came from Calfornia, then came from last in a field of nine to win the $100,000 Whirlaway Handicap by 3/4 length over Spanish Empire. Almuhathir was third. Olmodavor, a Kentucky-bred, 5-year-old son of A.P. Indy, ran 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:45.59 for jockey Corie Lanerie. Trainer Richard Mandella, by phone from California, said he hopes to return Olmodavor for the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap on Feb. 29. "This horse only lost by 3 lengths to (Horse of the Year) Mineshaft last year and I think he'll do better with added distance and a track that won't be as heavy and deep," Mandella said.
Newfoundland hit the gate, endured a wide trip and still was able to catch front-running favorite Millennium Dragon at the wire in Saturday's $100,000 Canadian Turf Handicap. Everything to Gain was far back in third. The race was taken off the turf and run in 1:44.90 over a sloppy main track. "He broke a little slower than I wanted and I had to make up some ground earlier than I wanted," said winning rider John Velazquez. "But when I asked him, he responded and did everything I asked of him." Trainer Todd Pletcher said he will consider the Gulfstream Park Handicap for the 4-year-old son of Storm Cat. "He's the kind that gets better and better with age."
Saturday's $100,000 Suwannee River Handicap also was washed off the turf, with more than half the field scratching as a result. The best of the five remaining starters was Wishful Splendor, who rallied from off the pace to beat May Gator by 1 1/4 lengths. Mymich was third. Jose Santos rode Wishful Spendor over a sloppy 9 furlongs in 1:54.86. Wishful Spendor is a 5-year-old daughter of Smart Strike. Winning trainer Sal Russo said the mare was scheduled to be bred to Touch Gold. "But now, we'll see," he said.
Sunday's program, including the $60,000 Gaily Gaily Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on the turf, was canceled amid heavy rains.
Golden Gate Fields
Red Rioja, with jockey Eric Saint-Martin simply looking for the best trip, won Saturday's $100,000 Brown Bess Handicap by 1 length over Hooked on Niners. A B Noodle was third. Red Rioja, a 5-year-old, Irish-bred mare by King's Theatre, got the 1 1/16 mile on "soft" turf in 1:46.01. After trailing early, "I moved inside leaving the backstretch and then found room between horses on the turn," Saint-Martin said. "I just wanted her to stay out of trouble and get a clear trip. I knew she had the best speed numbers."
Tampa Bay Downs
Mary Murphy got a daylight lead in mid-stretch of Saturday's $60,000 Manatee Stakes for fillies and mares, then held on to beat Really Royal by 1/2 length. Cherry Tree Hill was third. Mary Murphy, a Kentucky-bred, 4-year-old daughter of Coronado's Quest, ran 7 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:26.64.
Also Saturday, Crafty Tears led from gate to wire in winning the $60,000 Gasparilla Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. The Kentucky-bred daughter of Crafty Friend set a measured pace, then drew clear in the stretch to win by 2 3/4 lengths over Wild Speed. Ladyinareddress was third. The 7 furlongs went in 1:26.81.
Skeet, the odds-on favorite, surged to the lead with an outside move on the turn and went on to win Saturday's $50,000 King Cotton Stakes by 4 lengths over Wacky for Love. Chindi was third. Skeet, a 4-year-old Dove Hunt colt, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.38. "I expected him to break a little sharper than he did," said winning jockey John McKee. "But then I just was patient and let him move when he wanted to. After that, he took me where he wanted to go." Trainer Bob Holthus said he was happy to see Skeet do well on the main track, where his last effort produced an eighth-place finish in the Kentucky Cup Sprint at Turfway Park last fall. "Had it not worked out well, we would have kept him back for the first grass stakes at Keeneland," Holthus added.
City Fire led from the start in Saturday's $50,000 Nellie Morse Stakes, crossed the wire first and was allowed to keep first-place money despite drifting sharply across the paths of two rivals in the stretch run. The stewards ruled City Fire's erratic path did not compromise the chances of second-place finisher Sweet Dynamite or Undercover, who finished third. "Something happened when I hit her with the left hand," said winning jockey Abel Castellano Jr. "But I was clear and my horse kept running. We got lucky but the horse ran great." City Fire finished the 1 1/16 mile in 1:43.76.
News and notes:
-- Pleasantly Perfect, Funny Cide, Candy Ride, Medaglia d'Oro, Congaree and Fleetstreet Dancer top the U.S. contingent invited to participate in the $6 million Dubai World Cup March 27 at Nad al Sheba. Japanese invitees include Admire Don and Star King Man. Mubtaker, runner-up in the Arc de Triomphe, was invited from England and Fields of Omagh, winner of the Cox Plate, was summoned to represent Australia.
-- Words aren't sufficient to express our sorrow at the untimely death of Kevin Goemmer. Goemms was one of the sharpest, most innovative and most thoughtful people on any race track anywhere. He had a great sense of humor and a flair for cookouts on the Hawthorne Race Course roof. And he was a good and loyal friend, to boot. As a fine human being, in his own words, he was "all alooooone" in front of the field. He will be missed and can't be replaced.