No ego in Capuano's barn Racing: Maryland's Gary Capuano appreciates his good fortune in training likely Kentucky Derby favorite Captain Bodgit, but can do without the spotlight.

April 09, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

Exhibit One: On national television, even Jim McKay, a fellow Marylander, can't remember his name.

Exhibit Two: A premier racetrack, Gulfstream Park, misspells his horse's name in promotions for a premier race. And the so-called ultimate authority on horse racing, the Daily Racing Form, pays the colt the ultimate insult by misidentifying him for months as a gelding.

Exhibit Three: When representatives of top jockeys call his barn, they ask whether their jocks can ride Dale's horse.

Case closed.

Gary Capuano -- not Dale, that's his brother -- is not getting the respect due the trainer of perhaps the best 3-year-old racehorse on the continent. If the Kentucky Derby were run today, Capuano's Captain Bodgit would likely be the betting favorite.

But Capuano, 33, from a Maryland family long immersed in horse racing, is raising no fuss. While other trainers prepare their Derby hopefuls before the cameras in New York, California or at Churchill Downs, Capuano is content conditioning his 17 modestly talented horses and his one "big horse" in the quiet obscurity of the Bowie Training Center.

"I'm not too much on all that publicity," said Capuano, hosing down the cracked pavement outside Barn 16, where a hand-painted sign in faded yellow and red reads, "Gary Capuano Racing Stable".

"I kind of like staying to myself."

He so enjoys the tranquil Bowie mornings that he isn't shipping Captain Bodgit to New York for Saturday's $500,000 Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct until Friday. That is to be Captain Bodgit's final race before the Kentucky Derby on May 3.

If the mild-mannered Capuano had his way, he and the horse would return to Maryland immediately after the Wood and stay until just before the Derby. He would gladly let the trainers of such other contenders as Pulpit, Free House and Silver Charm bask in the limelight.

But Captain Bodgit's owners have other plans.

On Monday, Capuano and the horse are to fly to Churchill Downs, where magic mixes with heartburn on the day of the nation's greatest race. For Capuano, who not only has not raced in the Derby but also has not set foot at Churchill Downs, life may never be the same.

"When this thing's over and done with, everybody and their mother are going to know this guy," said Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor, the California corporation that owns Captain Bodgit. "I know he'd rather be back in Maryland. But we're talking about the Kentucky Derby. There's no other race like it in the world."

In February, after Captain Bodgit finished third in his first race of 1997 -- the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park in Hallandale, Fla. -- Team Valor bought the horse for $500,000. The purchase shattered the home-bred triumvirate that led Captain Bodgit to five straight victories last year in Maryland and Delaware.

Phyllis Susini owned him. She's a spirited Marylander who, although declining to reveal her age, fesses up to owning horses for nearly 50 years -- but usually only one or two at a time. When Team Valor made the offer she couldn't refuse, Captain Bodgit was the lone horse in her stable.

Frank Douglas, a Maryland jockey, rode him. But Team Valor quickly replaced Douglas with Alex Solis, the leading rider in Southern California.

Capuano expected to be next. But Team Valor stuck with him.

"A lot of people can't believe I left the horse with a guy that nobody's heard of," said Irwin, a 53-year-old former turf writer, handicapper and racing commentator. "But I've seen enough in this business to know that sometimes you find a trainer who's absolutely tuned in to a horse.

"Gary knows this horse like the back of his hand. And that's an asset, especially in this case. This horse seems pretty unique."

For starters, he comes with an ugly bowed tendon in his left foreleg. The deformity is not a racing injury, says everyone associated with him. Irwin theorizes that the tendon sticks out because of a bandage wrapped too tightly. Or maybe, he says, the horse rapped its leg in the stall.

Regardless, the unsightly tendon was readily apparent when Capuano first saw the horse early last year on a training farm in Florida.

"I went to see him with Phyllis [who had just bought him]," Capuano said. "And here's this big, good-looking colt, and I'm thinking, 'Oh, boy.'

"But then I see the tendon. 'Oh no. What's this?' "

A year later, Dr. Alex Hart- hill, a veterinarian from Kentucky, had the same reaction. Before Irwin offered Captain Bodgit to his potential clients, he flew Harthill to Miami to examine the horse at Hialeah Park, where Capuano was stabled this winter.

"Barry warned me about it," Harthill said. "But still, when I first saw it, I didn't know that it looked like, well, like that."

Harthill spent four days examining Captain Bodgit, watching him train and watching Capuano and his Captain Bodgit team -- groom Mark Dillow and exercise rider Sam Davis -- work.

"They all got along like peas in a pod," Harthill said. "I was very impressed with them all.

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