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Original Issue


It was certainly among the most boisterous, crowded, exuberant
winner's circle scenes witnessed in years at old Aqueduct
Racetrack in New York City. Late on a rain-drenched, otherwise
gloomy afternoon last Saturday, nearly 50 people gathered in the
circle and cheered loudly as Alex Solis rode Captain Bodgit
toward them. They delivered a spontaneous burst of applause when
Solis, grinning from one mud-spattered cheek to the other,
dismounted the colt with a flourish. Captain Bodgit has 32
owners who race under the nom de course Team Valor, and 18 of
them--along with another 25 or so relatives and friends--had
shown up in the circle to welcome the Captain back from the wars.

The meaning of the moment was lost on no one. "You go to bed at
night and you dream of someday being in this position," said one
co-owner, Mark Belling, a radio talk-show host from Milwaukee.
"We've owned some good horses with Team Valor, but ... nothing
like this. We're going to the Kentucky Derby! And we might even
be the favorite."

Five minutes earlier, in the Wood Memorial, the lanky dark bay
colt had turned in his most commanding performance as a
racehorse. After tracking the leaders in sixth place through
most of the nine furlongs, the Captain kicked into sprinting
gear on the turn for home. "He threw me into the backseat," says
Solis. In full flight and four-wide coming off the bend, he
chased down and sailed past the leaders in the lane to win by
two lengths. The victory was particularly striking because
Captain Bodgit overcame a powerful bias; the wet but hard track
had been favoring front-running horses all day, with
mud-spattered stretch-runners struggling in vain pursuit. "He
won for fun today," Solis crowed. In doing so, the colt
reaffirmed the form that he flashed in his March 15 victory in
the Florida Derby.

By day's end, Captain Bodgit was not the only 3-year-old whose
connections were crowing about their Kentucky Derby prospects.
Four weeks after the Florida Derby, his only loss, Pulpit was
back and racing into the bit again. In the nine-furlong Blue
Grass Stakes at Keeneland, the high-strung son of A.P. Indy
settled comfortably behind the pacesetting Jules, picked up the
beat around the second turn, swept to the lead at the top of the
stretch and bounded home to win by 3 1/2 lengths. At Oaklawn
Park, in the nine-furlong Arkansas Derby, another late-charger,
Crypto Star, dropped nearly 15 lengths behind in the first half
mile, rejoined the race around the last turn and, in a final,
furious rush, drove past Phantom On Tour to win by a half
length. Crypto Star, who has won four of his five starts this
year--including the Louisiana Derby on March 16--announced
himself as a solid contender in Louisville.

So we are set up for a Kentucky Derby as competitive and
inscrutable this year as ever. And no horse is coming to it any
better than Captain Bodgit--a tough, resilient customer who has
won seven of 10 starts, including five stakes, and finished
third in the other three. Yet not one of the contenders looks
less like a Derby favorite than the Captain. In March 1996, a
few days after Phyllis Susini purchased him for approximately
$45,000, the colt bumped his left front leg on his stall and
suffered what appeared to be a bowed tendon, an injury involving
a rupture to the tendon sheath, which frequently ends a horse's
career. The swelling suggested a bow, but the colt walked and
galloped soundly, and the injury healed. The swelling, however,
never subsided.

"You can see it a quarter of a mile away, but he has never taken
a bad step on it," says his trainer, Gary Capuano. It never
compromised his training or slowed down his campaign as a
racehorse. After finishing third in his first outing last July
20, at Laurel Race Course in Maryland, the colt ran off five
straight victories, three of them in stakes. By then, the
president of Team Valor, Barry Irwin, had begun tracking the
Captain in his search for a Derby prospect. He asked a
bloodstock agent to find out if the colt was for sale, but the
agent waved him away. "You don't want him," he told Irwin. "He's
bowed." A few weeks later, recalls Irwin, the colt won the
Laurel Futurity and raised his '96 earnings to $136,749.

With that, Irwin was back on the phone to his agent. "He's not
bowed!" Irwin cried. "It's impossible to win the Laurel Futurity
on a bow. I want to try to buy the horse." When Captain Bodgit
finished third in his first start as a 3-year-old, in the Holy
Bull Stakes at Gulfstream on Jan. 18, Irwin told the agent to
find out what Susini wanted for him. She didn't want to sell him
at all, she says, so she set a $550,000 price, assuming there
would be no takers. When Capuano advised the agent of the price,
Irwin asked Alex Harthill, the prominent Kentucky veterinarian,
to examine the colt in Florida. Harthill reported back that the
suspect tendon was "very ugly."

"Is it an automatic throw out?" Irwin asked.

"I wouldn't say that," replied the doc, who told Irwin that the
old injury had healed. "Am I going to look like an idiot among
my peers if I buy the horse?" Irwin asked. To which he says the
doc replied, "Yes, but so will I."

So Irwin shelled out $500,000 of Team Valor's money for the colt
with the swollen left leg, and as part of the deal he agreed to
add another $50,000 if Captain Bodgit won a Grade I stake in the
next two years. At Harthill's urging, Irwin decided to retain
the 33-year-old Capuano as the trainer; no one knew better the
needs of the youngster "with the tendon." In his first start for
his new owners, the Fountain of Youth Stakes on Feb. 22 at
Gulfstream, the Captain faced the sensational and then
undefeated Pulpit. It was certainly no time to wash out in the
paddock, pitch a fit in the starting gate then fall 22 1/2
lengths behind the pace in the first half. But that's what the
Captain did. Then, remarkably, he made up 20 1/2 lengths to
finish third, just two lengths behind Pulpit. Three weeks later
he ran down Pulpit through the lane in the Florida Derby,
drawing off to beat him by 2 1/2 lengths. Susini had waited only
six weeks for her $50,000 bonus.

The Kentucky Derby sets up as a rubber match between those two
colts. Irwin doesn't seem worried. "I don't want to sound cocky,
but I love our chances," he said on his way to the winner's
circle after the Wood. Just two months ago the man was fretting
that his peers might view him as an idiot for buying the colt
with the unsightly leg. Today, he is the sage of Team Valor.

COLOR PHOTO: SKIP DICKSTEIN Even though he spent much of the race getting mud in his eye, the Captain pulled rank in the stretch. [Alex Solis riding horse Captain Bodgit in Wood Memorial]