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.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

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.

"But that horse! He was so agile. He moved like a cat. And he trained. Boy, did he train! He trained with a vengeance."

Harthill concluded that the tendon, as misshapen as it is, was not a hindrance. And he suggested to Irwin that he consider keeping the horse with Capuano.

"I was planning all along to give him to Hennig," Irwin said, referring to Team Valor's regular trainer, Mark Hennig. "But Harthill was right. Any trainer -- Mark included -- who took one look at that tendon would be afraid to train the horse."

Capuano began conditioning Captain Bodgit with long gallops. He discovered that the farther the horse worked, the more he liked it.

"He's relatively quiet around the barn," Capuano said. "The only time he acts up is when he comes off the racetrack. He lunges and squeals like he doesn't want to quit. He never seems to get enough training."

Capuano's methods, and Team Valor's decision to stick by them, have paid dividends. In Captain Bodgit's second start for his new owners, he upset the highly regarded Pulpit in the $500,000 Florida Derby on March 15 at Gulfstream Park.

The winner's circle was bedlam. Many of the 32 partners that own shares in Captain Bodgit were there, celebrating as if they'd won $10 million.

For Capuano, this was his biggest win. He had won three $100,000 stakes in Maryland, but nothing ever like this. He hugged his wife, Angie, and children, 3-year-old Phillip and 15-month-old Victoria.

But once on camera with Jim McKay, who was broadcasting the race on ABC, Capuano could hardly speak. As McKay struggled to remember his name, Capuano wiped tears from his eyes. Overcome with emotion, he managed to say that this was for Maryland and "for Pooch" -- Dennis Puciato, 49, a close friend and clocker at Bowie who had died a few days before.

Capuano's older brother, Dale, the leading trainer in Maryland, watched on TV.

"I still get chills thinking about it," he said, sitting in his office on the backstretch at Laurel Park, tears welling in his eyes. "Maybe after you've won your ninth or 10th big race you can stand there like Wayne Lukas and be eloquent. I wouldn't have been able to talk, either."

It's perhaps ironic that Gary, and not Dale, has the potential Derby horse. But Dale said he's not envious, only extremely pleased for his brother.

He said they've talked at length about Dale's one experience at the Kentucky Derby -- in 1989 he saddled Wind Splitter, a 47-1 long shot who finished 11th. But that won't be anything like training the possible Derby favorite.

Dale is going to try to spend the week before the Derby in Louisville with Gary. And Team Valor's Irwin said he and Harthill will be there, as well.

"We'll try to deflect as much attention away from Gary and the horse as we can," Irwin said.

Gary Capuano smiled when he heard of that plan.

"That's great by me," he said. "I'd rather them do it than me."

But he will have to answer his share of questions -- more than his share. And many will be something like: What's it like being at your first Derby?

"It's the race you dream about, the one you grow up watching on TV," said Capuano, whose father, Phillip, a trainer, brought him to his barn as a baby. " 'Hey, that could be me one day. All I need is that one big horse.'

"But I'm not a Lukas or somebody who gets the best-bred horses in the country. Most of mine come through the claiming box.

"It's like Dr. Harthill told me: "You'd better enjoy it. It's usually something that comes around once in a lifetime.' "

Captain Bodgit file

Born: May 10, 1994, in Florida

Sire: Saint Ballado

Dam: Answering Echo

Record: 9 starts, 6 wins, 3 thirds

Earnings: $469,749

Road to the Kentucky Derby:

Jan 18: Holy Bull Stakes, 1 1/16 miles, Gulfstream Park, finished third after rallying four wide.

Feb. 22: Fountain of Youth Stakes, 1 1/16 miles, Gulfstream Park, finished third after making up 20 lengths.

March 15: Florida Derby, 1 1/8 miles, Gulfstream Park, defeated Pulpit, became a favorite for Kentucky Derby

Next race: Wood Memorial Stakes at Aqueduct, Saturday

Race results

The Sun will no longer offer horse racing results through Sundial. Results and scratches for out-of-town races that are simulcast at Maryland betting outlets are available by calling the Laurel-Pimlico results line at 410-792-7464. It is a local call from the Baltimore metropolitan area.

Pub Date: 4/09/97

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