06/14/2001 12:00AM

Beyond the big 2 in the Foster


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - While there is little argument about Captain Steve being a deserving favorite in the Stephen Foster Handicap, and Unshaded being an equally deserving second choice, a fight still looms.

Six other horses will oppose the two favorites, and the trainers of each are conceding nothing.

Todd Pletcher has gone out of his way to ship Graeme Hall from New York while also flying in jockey Victor Espinoza from California. Elliott Walden long has been very optimistic that Brahms, heretofore a turf specialist, will make a successful transition to dirt. Pat Byrne is buoyed by the way Duckhorn returned to peak form in winning the Hawthorne Gold Cup. And Mitch Shirota always has been confident in Jadada.

Clearly the overriding variable that yields the most hope is the apparent vulnerability of the two favorites. Captain Steve will make his first start in nearly three months after winning the Dubai World Cup, while Unshaded will make just his second start since undergoing surgery for a strained tendon.

"Captain Steve might not come out the way some people think," said Forrest Kaelin, trainer of Da Devil. "You never know what's going on after Dubai."

Da Devil, whose career highlight has been a 65-1 upset in the 1999 Kentucky Cup Classic, finished a fast-closing second to Unshaded in a May 17 allowance here. "My horse gave Unshaded all he wanted that day," said Kaelin. "Who knows? It might be Da Devil's day again."

Niall O'Callaghan, who entered Guided Tour after agonizing over a long list of factors all week, said a clunker from one or more of the favorites could put his horse in a prime upset position.

"If Captain Steve, Unshaded, or Brahms don't run well, then I figure I'm in the running for third," said O'Callaghan. "And after that, anything can happen."

* One unexpected defection from the Foster was Connected, an easy winner of a May 25 allowance here. Trainer David Carroll said that when Connected's regular rider, Larry Melancon, decided to ride Guided Tour, owner Helen Alexander was disinclined to enter.

"We'll just wait and find an easier spot, that's all," said Carroll.

Stephen Foster fills the bill

Three years ago, when Churchill quintupled the purse for the Foster from $150,000-added to $750,000-added, the track aimed to make the race a major highlight of the post-Kentucky Derby segment of the spring meet.

The mission seems accomplished. Once again, the Foster is being nationally televised as part of the NTRA Champions series. The race has attracted top-class company since the raise, having been won by Awesome Again (1998), Victory Gallop (1999) and Golden Missile (2000). And local awareness of the significance of the race has translated into sizable increases in ontrack business on Foster day.

"This race clearly has become a signature event during the latter part of our spring meet," said Churchill spokesman John Asher.

* While the annual Alumni Day ceremonies, in which the winning connections from previous Kentucky Derbies gathered amid considerable pomp and circumstance, has been suspended for economic reasons this year, there is still a holdover from previous Alumni Days: The presentation of the engraved Derby trophy to John and Debbie Oxley, owners of Monarchos, will be made after the 10th race Saturday.