Tired of hearing about his horse's string of disappointing runs, trainer Nick Zito spoke of yesterday's second-place finish in the Preakness as a redemptive run. For third-place jockey Jerry Bailey, Congaree's effort could only be seen as troubled and ultimately disappointing.
Neither horse was able to challenge favored winner Point Given in the final furlong, but the different perspectives were indicative of different expectations. A P Valentine rallied down the stretch to pass a tiring and hand-ridden Congaree, who refused to rate behind pace-setter Richly Blended during the first half-mile, which was run in an honest 47.32 seconds.
After finishing more than a combined 48 lengths off the lead in his previous three Grade I stakes, A P Valentine proved his toughness by overcoming an early shoving match with long shot Marciano and being sent off-stride when Point Given moved in front of him when making his move in the backstretch. Sent off at 10-1 odds, last November's favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile ran to his potential.
"We went with Point Given but we didn't have any room," said Zito, promising his horse would return for next month's Belmont Stakes. "We had to wait. Then we had to make our move on the outside. That was disappointing."
Zito had replaced jockey Corey Nakatani with Victor Espinoza after A P Valentine's rugged trip and seventh-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. Yesterday, no excuses were offered. Point Given beat him by 2 1/4 lengths
"When your horse finishes first or second, they loved the racetrack. When your horse finishes seventh or ninth, they didn't like the racetrack," Zito said. "Didn't you learn anything from horse trainers yet? They should all be lawyers or politicians."
Zito said that if his horse had to lose to any other, he was glad it was Point Given; A P Valentine's biggest win to date came over the horse in last October's Champagne Stakes.
"The winner surprised me," Zito said. "The winner's a top horse. But we beat him in the Champagne, which shows that our horse is just like him."
Congaree, who finished third in the Derby as well after slugging out a brutal 44.86-second half-mile pace, suffered more complications. While trainer Bob Baffert's other entry enjoyed a seamless trip to win, Congaree again refused to wait for a reasonable pace.
"Jerry just couldn't get him back off the pace. ... He ran his guts out in the Wood [Memorial], the Derby, in every race. He's a really good horse," Baffert said.
Congaree, the post-time third choice at 5-2, has relinquished ground in the stretch of all three races he has run at more than 1 1/16 miles. Unlike his Derby effort, where he received perfect placement, yesterday's trip was a struggle from the outset.
Congaree stumbled badly at the break, lurched inward, then immediately rushed to press the lead. An expected challenge for the lead from other challengers never developed, leaving Congaree in limbo - neither on the lead nor behind a row of horses as Baffert preferred.
"There was one speed horse [Richly Blended] and every other horse took back. I thought Mr. John would show much more speed. But everybody else took back, so Jerry didn't have an option. If you hold him back too much, you take the fight out of him," Baffert said.
"If Richly Blended hadn't been there, he would have been able to cruise into an easy lead by himself. Once he gets the lead, you can control him. If he gets an easy lead, he keeps going."
Bailey realized his predicament down the backstretch and allowed his horse to close within a head after six furlongs. By then, his race had been compromised.
Baffert, revved by his third Preakness victory, withheld a decision on whether Congaree would attempt the 1 1/2 -mile Belmont in three weeks.