Updated on 09/15/2011 12:24PM

Captain Steve: 6th and climbing

Ed Whittaker
Captain Steve moved into sixth place on the career earnings list when he won the $6 million Dubai World Cup last March.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Captain Steve is not widely regarded as one of the top racehorses of all time. But if he wins the $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs Saturday, he will leapfrog from sixth to third place on the career earnings list and trail only Cigar and Skip Away.

Mike Pegram, who bought Captain Steve for $70,000 as a yearling, acknowledges that earnings are not the sole measure of greatness and that the effects of inflation have helped to overshadow the accomplishments of the stars of yesteryear. But that doesn't mean Captain Steve can't eventually be widely acclaimed as one of the greats.

As Pegram points out, Captain Steve, a son of Fly So Free, doesn't have fashionable breeding. "If he was by Storm Cat or something, everybody would think he's the next coming," he said.

Pegram said that although Captain Steve failed to make an impact in the Triple Crown last year, the colt has since made tremendous progress for trainer Bob Baffert. From eight subsequent starts, he has won five times, the last two being the most impressive: the Grade 1 Donn Handicap in February and the $6 million Dubai World Cup on March 24.

Captain Steve earned $3.6 million in Dubai, accounting for more than half of his career bankroll of $6,527,156. A win Saturday would be worth about $500,000, which would take him past John Henry, Alysheba, and Silver Charm - who was also trained by Baffert - on the all-time list.

"The thing is, he's still active," said Pegram, who, as usual, will be at Churchill to watch Captain Steve run Saturday.

"He went halfway around the world [to win in Dubai], and that puts him in the same category with Cigar and Silver Charm," who won the Dubai World Cup in 1996 and 1998.

As has become standard procedure since Cigar won the inaugural Dubai Cup in 1996, questions abound about whether an American winner can fully recover from the arduous round-trip journey. Horses have been known to take a long time to get over the trip to Dubai, and Baffert has proceeded cautiously while monitoring Captain Steve's progress.

"At first you don't notice the effects," said Baffert. "They come back looking really, really good. But then they just start tailing off on you a little bit."

In the case of Silver Charm, "he bled on me in Dubai, so I laid off of him for a while. Then he put on all that weight, and I don't think I ever got him back to his fighting weight."

Conversely, Captain Steve is sporting his typical sleek and fit appearance, although Baffert said the colt has experienced some minor problems in his hind end.

"He got a little tight there and didn't want to come out of it," he said. "But I think I've got him back where I want him. I think he'll run well. We'll know more about the effects [of Dubai] in the race, but I really think he should be right there."

Besides the usual factors of heat, distance, unfamiliarity, and the rigors of running 1 1/4 miles against some of the world's best horses, Baffert believes Captain Steve may also have been adversely affected by something else in Dubai.

"They don't allow toe grabs over there," he said, so Captain Steve "had to run in flat shoes," to which he is not accustomed. "He didn't get a hold of the track like he usually does. If you'll notice, it took him a while to really get going, I think because he was slipping. I think that might have caused him to come out of the race the way he did."

Pegram is excited about the prospect of having a horse in position to become the all-time leading earner. With good finishes in the several races that will lead to the Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 27, Captain Steve conceivably could overtake Cigar's leading total of $9,999,185 by winning the $4 million Classic. Pegram said he had "no idea" whether he would keep Captain Steve active at 5, regardless of where the horse stands on the all-time list.

Pegram, who in recent seasons has been represented by Eclipse champions Silverbulletday and Real Quiet, said ascending to the top of the list would make Captain Steve worthy of mention with the all-time greats, even if the purses of this era are inflated.

"He's done some good things, taken his show on the road," said Pegram. "If he continues to run the next six months the way he has the last six, then yeah, he's proved his greatness."

Click here for a list of the Top 10 North American-based money earners.