12/05/2002 1:00AM

Capuano here not just to see sights


HOUSTON - Trainers who came within a head of winning the Kentucky Derby don't show up at Sam Houston Race Park very often.

But Gary Capuano, who saddles Cherokee's Boy in the Great State Challenge Juvenile here on Saturday, nearly won the Derby in 1997.

Capuano trained Captain Bodgit, who just missed to Silver Charm in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. After that, Captain Bodgit was retired, and Capuano essentially returned to the obscurity of the Maryland racing circuit. Today, Capuano is still somewhat dismayed that his feats with Captain Bodgit did not catapult his career to another level. Captain Bodgit won the Florida Derby and Wood Memorial before the Triple Crown races, but those accomplishments had minimal impact in terms of Capuano attracting major new clients.

"It definitely hasn't been as exciting as when I had Captain Bodgit," said Capuano, 39. "We've had some decent horses like Grundlefoot," a 5-year-old who has won several stakes over the last couple of years, "but obviously that's not quite the same."

Capuano, who maintains a stable of nearly 30 horses at the Bowie Training Center, said he nevertheless is encouraged by the quality and determination that Cherokee's Boy has shown in his six-race career. Cherokee's Boy, a Maryland-bred by Citidancer, has won three starts and nearly $150,000, with his last start resulting in a third-place finish behind Toccet in the Nov. 16 Laurel Futurity. Toccet won the Remsen Stakes last weekend.

Cherokee's Boy "actually reminds me a lot of Captain Bodgit," said Capuano, whose older brother, Dale, is a perennial leading trainer in Maryland. "I don't know if he has quite the same kind of talent, but he's definitely a professional. There are some things about him I really like. He had a horrendous trip in the Laurel Futurity. I thought he should have been easily second best."

Capuano, a Marylander from birth, said he is coming to Sam Houston for reasons other than to expand his worldly horizons. He has never been here before.

"I'm hoping to make some money Saturday," he said. "That's a long way to go for nothing."

Purse money from three sources

Every horse that runs in a Great State race will earn at least $2,500, as the series pays from first place down to last. From there, however, the purse breakdown gets a little more complicated, as not all horses will be running for the same amount of money Saturday.

Purses for the six races come from three sources of funding, and when a horse is eligible for all of them, he runs for a purse of $275,000. Of that amount, $175,000 is guaranteed money, put up by the National Thoroughbred Racing Association and available to all starters, with the winner of each race earning $90,000 from the NTRA.

The NTRA funds also provide for sixth- through last-place finishers to earn $2,500.

A second tier of funding comes from the Breeders' Cup, which contributes $50,000 to each race, with those funds restricted to horses nominated to that program. A third source is from the individual states, which are putting up as much as $50,000 a race, available only to their own horses.

Of the 10 states competing, six will make funds available to their statebreds: California, Florida, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, and Texas.

Some states were unable to contribute to the purses. There is a state law in New York, for example, that prohibits the state breeding fund from distributing money outside of New York. Funds not distributed during the races revert back to the organization from which they originated.

Stallion Stakes head undercard

Eagle Lake, who has won her last four races, is a standout in the fillies and mares division of the $50,000 Texas Stallion Stakes if she goes. She is also entered in the Distaff against Take Charge Lady.

In the event Eagle Lake opts for the Great State race, Khazi would be the one to beat in the one-mile Texas Stallion on the strength of her second-place finish at the distance last out in the $75,000 Martanza Handicap.

The Texas Stallion Stakes, which is restricted to the offspring of nominated stallions, is one of four undercard stakes that support the Great State Challenge.

In the other division of the race, both Fitzroyal, a stakes winner around one turn, and Star of Caveat, a stakes winner on turf, will both try to prove themselves at something new: a mile on dirt.

For the other two stakes, the $30,000 Cy-Fair for 3-year-old fillies at six furlongs and the $30,000 San Felipe for fillies and mares at the same distance, some horses are cross-entered, including stakes winner Cielo Girl and Churchill Downs allowance winner Ifyouprefersilver.

Block confident in Mystery Giver

Chicago trainer Chris Block traveled with Mystery Giver for the Turf but soon will send his stable star to Richie Scherer at Fair Grounds, just as he did last year. Block, who in some previous years has taken a string to Gulfstream, said he is staying put in Chicago this winter.

Block said that Mystery Giver, a Dynaformer colt who has earned nearly $400,000, has Forbidden Apple as his toughest rival Saturday, but added that "my horse is doing very well."

Mystery Giver ran once before at Sam Houston, finishing ninth in the John B. Connally Breeders' Cup in February, "but you can throw that race out," said Block. "He's going to run a lot better this time."

Signal to hit major markets

At least from a business angle, the Great State Challenge already is a smashing success.

Sam Houston president and general manager Bob Bork said full-card simulcasting of the entire Saturday card will be available in such major jurisdictions as New York (including New York City OTB), California, Kentucky, Illinois.

In New York, where the number of imported signals is limited, the Sam Houston signal will replace Fair Grounds for Saturday.

Although all-source projections are difficult to make, the bottom line should far exceed the all-time single-day Houston record of just over $4 million set in 1999.

One-horse barn for the day

Mike Maker was standing around with nothing to do Thursday morning, which came as a major change. Maker, the longtime assistant to D. Wayne Lukas, brought just one horse for the Great State - Day Trader, one of the favorites for the Sprint.

Maker recently oversaw a full barn at Churchill Downs and will meet up again soon with many of the same horses at Gulfstream Park. He almost felt guilty by being idle Thursday. "I'll feel even worse if we get beat," he said with a smile.

Day Trader most recently finished 11th in the Breeders' Cup Sprint but has run some big races in the past, including a romp in the Kentucky Cup Sprint in September.

"All he needs to do is duplicate that," said Maker.

Top jocks in town

Seldom if ever has the Sam Houston jockeys' room housed the kind of talent that will be here Saturday.

Pat Valenzuela, Edgar Prado, and Corey Nakatani are among the most accomplished jockeys in for the Great State. Other out-of-town riders scheduled to ride in the Great State include Robby Albarado, Tyler Baze, Ramon Dominguez, Donnie Meche, and Mario Pino.

Long haul for Dibben

Kathy Dibben and her father, Phil, drove a horse trailer some 1,500 miles last weekend to Houston from Maryland, to run Purple Sand in the Turf.

"We got a nice big box stall and took turns driving down here," said Kathy Dibben.

Kathy Dibben has been in racing nearly 30 years, having started by galloping horses such as Caesar's Wish for trainer Richard Small in Maryland. She knows Purple Sand will be a huge price against the likes of Forbidden Apple and Devine Wind, but "he's as honest as he can be," she said. "He'll try like he always does."

Murray out to cap year

Trainer Larry Murray, whose stable has enjoyed a terrific year in Maryland, could put an exclamation point on the season with La Reine's Terms in the Turf and Pickupspeed in the Classic.

Murray is scheduled to travel here Saturday in the private plane owned by Howard and Sondra Bender, who own both horses.

La Reine's Terms, a winner of 13 races and over $525,000, is training particularly well coming into the Turf, said assistant trainer Steve Pettit.

"He's the best I've ever seen him," said Pettit.

* A mix-up in signals resulted in the entry, then the quick scratch, of Adminniestrator in the Turf. Trainer Paddy Gallagher had seriously considered sending the gray gelding from California, but by the time he decided against coming, entries already were being drawn at the Wednesday luncheon at Reliant Stadium.

* A flight carrying six horses from California was to arrive Friday morning. Slated to be aboard were Continental Red, who goes in the Classic; Graceful Cat (Distaff); Devine Wind (Turf); Miss Nicolie (Juvenile Fillies); and Only the Best and Crackup, who are rivals in the Juvenile.

- additional reporting by Mary Rampellini