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 3½ 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 22½ lengths behind the pace in the first half. But that's what the Captain did. Then, remarkably, he made up 20½ 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 2½ lengths. Susini had waited only six weeks for her $50,000 bonus.