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Congaree cruises to victory at Aqueduct.
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Congaree gives Baffert another ace in Wood

NEW YORK - Forget the vernal equinox and Daylight Savings Time. To a New York horseplayer, spring begins when the starting gates open for the Wood Memorial, the Big Town's marquee prep for the Kentucky Derby.

Congaree, ridden by Victor Espinoza, wins the $750,000 Wood Memorial on April 14.
They ran the Wood for the 81st time Saturday at Aqueduct, where the temperature was 63, the sky was clear and the wind was no factor. At last, after a nasty winter and a damp, dreary start to April, a race that mattered was going off under ideal conditions at the funky old track in Queens.

Besides the changing of the seasons, the Wood provided a sobering reminder of another inevitability: The rich always get richer.

Trainer Bob Baffert already had the top-ranked Derby contender in Point Given, and now it appears the white-haired wise guy has the No. 2 colt, too. His lightly raced Congaree cruised to a 2 3/4-length Wood victory over Florida Derby winner Monarchos, who was rated behind only Point Given before being whipped by his stablemate.

"We have always been excited about this horse," Baffert said of Congaree. "I knew he would win, I just didn't know how far he would win by. I know when I have a really, really good horse, and he showed me today that he is. He brought it to another level."

The winner paid $5.40 after covering 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.90 for his third win in four lifetime starts. He's unbeaten as a 3-year-old, when his smallest margin has been five lengths. He earned $450,000 for Robert and Janice McNair's Stonerside Stable, which bred him in Kentucky.

That Congaree managed to survive, let alone make it to the races, was a triumph.

"Congaree is so special to me. He had some problems when he was born because he was too big," Robert McNair said. "He broke two ribs and fractured three ribs at birth. He was taped up and spent the first 45 days of his life in a stall. After being weaned, he got pneumonia. Then after his first start, he got a chip in his knee.

"To see him come along and do this is very special."

Congaree broke well and sat second behind Richly Blended until rider Victor Espinoza asked the son of Arazi to challenge the pacesetter midway up the backstretch. Congaree was gliding along outside the undefeated leader and looked ready to take him whenever Espinoza felt like it. Three furlongs from the wire, Congaree made the lead and was gone. Jockey Jorge Chavez was putting the pressure on Monarchos midway on the stretch turn but the rangy gray never got into the race. Monarchos was fifth of six at the three-eighths pole and second by five lengths with an eighth of a mile to go. He rallied gamely to cut the gap almost in half, but it was academic to those who had made him the 4-5 favorite.

Richly Blended held on for third, and the rest -- It's So Simple, Voodoo and Paging -- should have turned around on the backstretch and headed back to the barn. No Derby for you.

Trainer John Ward endured a tough day, watching Monarchos come up short a half-hour before his other Derby hopeful, Hero's Tribute, would finish last in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Ward saluted Congaree, Baffert and the McNairs but seemed far from depressed over the Wood.

"I was pleased my horse was closing at the end, and he'll be the better for it," Ward said. "So I think I'm right where I want to be. He finished up really strong and galloped out well. I think he'll be even fitter for a mile and a quarter. He's a tight horse going into the Derby.

"He ran the kind of race we wanted, and I'm happy with the result I got. If he had been able to run that horse down in the stretch and win, Monarchos would have come back a pretty wobbly-legged horse."

When asked if he felt disappointed, Ward waved his left index finger and shook his head.

"First Saturday in May," he said. "This is a scrimmage."

Seven of the last nine Derby winners didn't win their final prep, and when they were being draped with roses, nobody cared. But Baffert will be coming to Louisville with two loaded colts, and he already has two victories in a race that has eluded so many Hall of Fame trainers.

"We know we're looking good," Baffert said. "We just have to keep them at the same level."

If he can pull that off, everybody else may be trying to finish third.