NEW YORK -- Not even slop could derail the Captain Bodgit express as it barrels toward the Kentucky Derby.
In a steady downpour on a track of mud soup, the mighty colt stabled in Maryland triumphed yesterday at Aqueduct. He won the $500,000 Wood Memorial Stakes and solidified his claim as the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby on May 3 at Churchill Downs.
Captain Bodgit appeared to win so effortlessly -- gliding like a skater from sixth place on a day when no other closers prevailed -- that the question must be considered: How much better can this horse get?
"I don't think either of us knows how good this horse is," said Barry Irwin, head of the syndicate that owns Captain Bodgit.
Irwin nodded toward Gary Capuano, sitting next to him in the post-race interview room. Capuano, the 33-year-old trainer based at the Bowie Training Center, conditions the horse.
"I will say this," Irwin continued. "This horse is so good right now that no rival trainers are knocking him. Nobody in the press is knocking him. I think it's been many a moon since there's been a horse like that."
He meant a horse like that on the Derby trail, a 3-year-old with nothing to knock -- a powerful, dominating horse that wins in Maryland, wins in Delaware, wins in Florida, wins in New York and, tomorrow, flies to Churchill Downs, where he'll try to win in Kentucky.
Awaiting the bold invaders will be Pulpit. The lightly raced colt who dazzled the racing world in Florida scored an easy win yesterday in the $700,000 Blue Grass Stakes in Keeneland, Ky.
And in the day's third major Derby prep, Crypto Star unleashed a long, late rally to claim the $500,000 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.
All three winners of the 1 1/8 -mile races were the bettors' choices. Captain Bodgit was 8-to-5 in a field of 10. He paid $5.50 to win.
Before the race, Capuano fretted about the rain -- a drizzle that began about noon and turned into a downpour three hours later. He had said he would not risk running the horse, who carries a misshapen tendon on his left foreleg, on a sticky track.
But fortunately for the young trainer, on the verge of his first trip to Churchill Downs, he had a guinea pig. Greatsilverfleet, a horse trained by his brother, Dale, ran in a race one hour before the Wood. Alex Solis, the California jockey, rode Greatsilverfleet.
Not only did Solis win aboard the striking gray horse, but he brought back good news to Gary Capuano: The track was wet, but not sticky.
"It's fast," Capuano said. "It's lightning-fast. We're going to go."
When the starting gate opened, Captain Bodgit broke a step slow, and Solis hustled him toward the first turn, settling into mid-pack.
Smokin Mel, winner of the one-mile Gotham Stakes two weeks ago at Aqueduct, set a moderate pace. Captain Bodgit galloped along in sixth place, eight lengths behind Smokin Mel.
As the horses entered the far turn, Captain Bodgit began steaming like a freight train. He accelerated along the rail, and then Solis swung him four wide. He overtook the leaders with ease, running off by two lengths.
"At the five-sixteenths pole, I asked him, and he threw me into the back seat," Solis said. "He surprises me how much better he's getting."
Accelerator, trained by Shug McGaughey, rallied from eighth place for second. Smokin Mel hung on for third. Next across the wire were Ordway, Activist, Jack At The Bank, Wild Tempest, Twin Spires, Droopy Stone and Hoxie.
The Captain Bodgit-Accelerator exacta paid $28. The trifecta returned $139.50. The winner's time over the fast track was 1 minute, 48 1/5 seconds, the third quickest in the Wood since 1952, when the race was changed to its present distance.
Although Capuano was composed during his interview after the race with ABC's Dave Johnson, emotions -- and tears -- abounded in the sopping-wet winner's circle. The Capuano brothers hugged, and their father, Phillip, a Maryland horseman, hugged them both.
"I tell you," Phillip Capuano said. "I'm just so excited. This is as good as it gets, believe me."
Gary Capuano was asked what he thought about training the Kentucky Derby favorite.
"It's nice to think you've got the favorite," said Capuano, typically understated. "But everybody's out to knock off the favorite. The favorite hasn't won the Derby in a long time."
Then he was asked how he plans on handling the attention.
"It depends on how much I can hide from you guys," Capuano said, smiling only slightly. "I'm going to turn my phone off, that's the first thing I'm going to do."
In the Blue Grass at Keeneland, Pulpit proved that his early successes in Florida were no fluke. As the 2-to-5 favorite, he ambled to a 3 1/2 -length win over Acceptable. Stolen Gold rallied for third, followed by Celtic Warrior, Jules, Wrightwood and King Crimson.
Pulpit's time over a dry track was 1: 49 4/5, 1 3/5 seconds slower than Captain Bodgit's. Pulpit paid $2.80, the exacta $16 and the trifecta $61.
"I don't think we've seen the best of him yet," said Frank Brothers, the trainer of Pulpit.
In the Arkansas Derby, Crypto Star burst from 10th place to collar Phantom On Tour a few strides before the wire. Pacificbounty finished third, followed by Stop Watch, Deputy Commander, Zede, River Squall, Brave Act, Direct Hit, Star Of Halo and Thatsusintheolbean.
Crypto Star paid $5 to win and topped a $29 exacta and $98 trifecta. His time of 1: 49 1/5 fell between the times of Pulpit and Captain Bodgit.
"I got excited in the Louisiana Derby [which Crypto Star won], and I'm more excited here," said the horse's trainer, Wayne Catalano. "I'll get even more excited in Kentucky."
Winners of yesterday's Kentucky Derby preps:
Wood Memorial: Captain Bodgit
Blue Grass Stakes: Pulpit
Arkansas Derby: Crypto Star
Pub Date: 4/13/97