10/15/2003 11:00PM

Bell and Capitano: Why not?

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ARCADIA, Calif. - It required a bit of imagination, even some healthy self-delusion. But if you stood just so, and held your binoculars just right, and ignored that annoying guy Trevor Denman on the loudspeaker system shouting about some other animal, it was almost possible to believe that the 2-year-old colt Capitano was the one-length winner of the Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita on Oct. 4.

That would be a good thing, if it were true, since the Norfolk has been a promising indicator of solid Breeders' Cup form. Norfolk fields have produced winners Chief's Crown, Capote, Brocco, and Anees, as well as such admirably placed runners as Kafwain, Bertrando, River Special, Grand Canyon, and Street Cry.

For many horsemen with Breeders' Cup ambitions, the Norfolk is the right race at the right time for their 2-year-old colt. And this year, with the Breeders' Cup on stage at Santa Anita next Saturday, a winning race over the course at the BC Juvenile distance of 1 1/16 miles would seem to be just the ticket.

If only it had happened that way.

Problem was, Capitano finished second in the Norfolk. Second, the same way Twice a Prince finished second to Secretariat in the Belmont Stakes, or Grenada finished second to the U.S. Marines. As a contest, the Norfolk was basically a bullfight, more one-sided than a hot game of solitaire.

At the end of the race - in which all runners left the gate at the same time - it was possible to see both the victorious Ruler's Court and runner-up Capitano with only the widest of wide-angle lenses. Fourteen lengths separated them at the finish, rendering the rest of the also-rans almost pointless in debates about division leadership. The Breeders' Cup Juvenile appeared to be at the mercy of Ruler's Court.

Then Sheikh Mohammed dropped his bombshell. Instead of running in the Breeders' Cup, Ruler's Court would be packed in bubble wrap, stamped "Send to Dubai," and prepared for quarantine, all in the name of winning the 2004 Kentucky Derby.

As a goal, this is admirable. The Kentucky Derby will always trump a Breeders' Cup in a trophy case. Issues of sportsmanship can be debated deep into the night. But if you ask Ray Bell, he will endorse Sheikh Mohammed's decision 100 percent. Bell trains Capitano.

"That was a freakish performance in the Norfolk," Bell said from his Santa Anita stable Thursday morning. "I expected Ruler's Court to improve a few lengths off his race against us in the Best Pal" - when Capitano was second and Ruler's Court fourth - "but not 16 lengths."

Without Ruler's Court, to Bell's way of thinking, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile becomes a wide-open event. The additional defections of Eurosilver, Birdstone, and Silver Wagon furthered Capitano's cause. Capitano is lightly raced and fresh, a formula that has been golden many times in Breeders' Cup Juvenile history.

Bell has saddled only one Breeders' Cup runner - fourth-place Flying Victor in the 1987 Breeders' Cup Juvenile - but that does not mean he is unfamiliar with racing at the highest levels.

Bell is a third-generation horseman, and his grandfather was the legendary cowboy Ray Bell Sr., a larger-than-life hero of rodeo, movie stunts, and international bloodstock, not to mention best pals with Will Rogers. The current Ray Bell learned the trade from his father, Tom Bell, trainer of 1980 Kentucky Derby runner-up Rumbo, among others. Young Ray always traveled with the stakes runners.

"When I was with Barberstown at the Belmont Stakes in 1983, we stabled in Woody Stephens's barn," Ray recalled. "I told Woody that any time he needed a stall in California, we'd love to return the favor."

Stephens won that Belmont, as usual, with Caveat, while the lightly raced Barberstown finished a game third. The following year, Stephens called in the favor and sent his turf mare Sabin to the Bell barn at Santa Anita for the Yellow Ribbon Stakes. She won, but that's not the point. Sabin came to mind when Bell perused Capitano's pedigree and found her listed there as his third dam. The trainer was not surprised.

"She was a small mare, I recall, and built kind of like an arrow," Bell said. "Capitano is on the smallish side as well, maybe 15-2 [hands], but well quartered and well developed."

So far, the colt has done very little wrong. He has yet to win a stakes, although he did make an impact in his debut on July 19 at Hollywood Park, cracking the skies with a payoff at odds of 109-1. His owner, Vicken Meguerditchian, will remember the day well, especially after getting Capitano's program number wrong on his mutuel ticket. Bell said Meguerditchian took it like a champ, but after all that, a Breeders' Cup upset wouldn't come as much of a surprise.

"He's been an overachiever," Bell said of Capitano. "One thing I know for sure is that he'll give us his best. There are all kinds of ways to approach a race like this with a 2-year-old, depending on their condition, their seasoning. In the end, we figured we're here, he's doing great, and it's a short walk to the paddock. So why not hang a bridle on him and give it a try?"