07/24/2001 12:00AM

Captain Steve seeks reversal of fortune

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Captain Steve has had twice as much time leading up to Sunday's $250,000 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar as he had going into his last race, the Hollywood Gold Cup. The way he ran in the Gold Cup, he will probably need to run twice as well to win.

Captain Steve has been defeated twice, both times as the odds-on favorite, since capturing the Dubai World Cup in March. In an attempt to reverse his fortunes, he will run in the 1 1/16-mile San Diego, which is used as a prep for this track's richest race, the $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 19. His starting status was assured after he worked five furlongs in 59 seconds Tuesday morning.

"He's training good down here," his trainer, Bob Baffert, said after Captain Steve worked in company with Spicy Stuff, who also will represent Baffert's barn in the San Diego. "They both worked good."

Captain Steve and Spicy Stuff worked just after the first of two morning renovation breaks. Captain Steve, with exercise rider Dana Barnes aboard, finished just in front of Spicy Stuff, who was ridden by jockey Victor Espinoza.

The San Diego will be Captain Steve's third race in six weeks. He was off for nearly three months following the World Cup, then was upset by Guided Tour in Churchill Downs's Stephen Foster Handicap. Captain Steve had to give Guided Tour 10 pounds that day. But in the Gold Cup, at level weights, Captain Steve flattened out and finished fourth. He was coming back just two weeks after the Stephen Foster, and jockey Gary Stevens blamed himself for asking Captain Steve for his best more than four furlongs from the wire.

"We were running him back soon, taking a shot, and that early move was not the right thing to do," Baffert said. "Then when he got bumped in the stretch, that was it."

Captain Steve was bumped during a chain reaction incident that resulted in the disqualification of Futural from victory in the Gold Cup. Futural and the horse he initially bothered, Skimming, are both expected to run in the San Diego.

The San Diego offers one-third the purse money of the Gold Cup, but will have a deeper and stronger field. The only notable absence is Aptitude, who was not involved in the bumping incident but inherited the Gold Cup victory. He is scheduled to make his next start at Saratoga.

The San Diego field is expected to include Budroyale, Captain Steve, Dig for It, Freedom Crest, Futural, Out of Mind, Penamacor, Skimming, Smile Again, and Spicy Stuff. With Stevens riding Captain Steve, trainer Richard Baltas needs to find a new rider for Freedom Crest, whom Stevens had ridden in his last three starts.

"I told him Gary would ride Freedom Crest unless Captain Steve ran," said Tony Matos, Stevens's agent.

Although Captain Steve - who has earned more than $6.7 million - won the World Cup going 1 1/4 miles, Baffert believes the San Diego's distance better suits his style. "A mile and a sixteenth is easier on him. A lot of mile-and-a-quarter races will burn a horse up," Baffert said. "I want to make sure he's sharp and ready for the Breeders' Cup."