06/12/2003 11:00PM

Coach Jimi Lee likely calling the shots

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CHICAGO - If it looks like Coach Jimi Lee is too good for Sunday's $45,000 Shecky Greene Stakes, well, he probably is.

Coach Jimi Lee finished third last month in the $111,000 Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill, beaten less than two lengths by Posse, who won the Grade 2 Riva Ridge last weekend at Belmont. Coach Jimi Lee steps down in class for the Shecky Greene simply for lack of better options.

"There was the Northern Dancer [Saturday at Churchill], but we're staying here," trainer Jimmy DiVito said this week. "I'd like to run him around home, but for sprinters here there aren't many spots. It looks like we may have to hit the road at some point."

Coach Jimi Lee seems road-worthy. He won the Hoosier Juvenile last November by more than four lengths, and was coming off a powerhouse win April 5 in the $101,000 Lost Code at Hawthorne when he ran into Posse. A speed-type sprinter last season, Coach Jimi Lee has learned to rally from behind, and his last two starts have produced triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures.

"I knew he had the ability last year - no one was outworking him in the morning - but you never know until they get going against better horses," DiVito said. "Now, he's been running against some pretty good ones."

Coach Jimi Lee seems to stand out in the Shecky Greene, for 3-year-olds at six furlongs. Cypress Cove, All American Blue, and Iceplosion - his three main rivals - all have shown talent, but nothing compared to Coach Jimi Lee's recent efforts.

Gate problems solved

Al's Dearly Bred had a fairly significant problem his first two years of racing. He wouldn't leave the starting gate.

That's not exactly true. Eventually, Al's Dearly Bred would decide to get started, but usually after his opponents were fading into the distance.

"He was spotting the field 20 lengths every time," said his trainer, Hugh Robertson.

Four times Florida chart-callers affixed "dwelt" to his past performance line. "Hesitated start," "unprepared start," and "slow start" were other favorites.

This was the most pressing issue Robertson faced when he took over Al's Dearly Bred's training late in the spring of 2001. "We changed a couple things, nothing drastic, and with help from [Arlington starter] Blue Knott, he breaks good now," Robertson said.

Al's Dearly Bred fell as low as $10,000 conditioned claiming company early in his 4-year-old season, but he hasn't seen a claiming race since coming to Chicago. In fact, at age 6, Al's Dearly Bred has evolved into a listed stakes-type turf horse, and he's still improving. He won his first start of the season here May 26 and has a legitimate chance Sunday in the $150,000 Sea o'Erin, a race in which Al's Dearly Bred ran third last year.

"He could be better this year than last," Robertson said. "He's got Relaunch breeding, and they tend to get better with age if they can stay sound."

That was a concern for Robertson when he first saw Al's Dearly Bred. "I didn't think looking at his ankles that we could keep him sound. But they've stayed at a status quo. He's been a pleasant surprise."

Jockey Rene Douglas, aboard for Al's Dearly Bred's last win, deserts him Sunday for the favorite, Miesque's Approval, but the horse gets a fine replacement in Seth Martinez, who comes in from Canterbury Park to ride him. Martinez has ridden Al's Dearly Bred in five races and won four of them.

Another success story for Maker

After watching Captain Nicholas train and race this winter at Fair Grounds, trainer Becky Maker engineered his private purchase by one of her clients, the Dare to Dream Stable. Captain Nicholas had won a $25,000 claiming race and Dare to Dream paid a similar sum for him in late March. Captain Nicholas looked like a turf route horse, but Maker wanted to shake things up and try him in a seven-furlong dirt claiming race at Keeneland.

And then she started riding the horse during his morning exercise.

"He felt like a good horse underneath me," said Maker, who has been training on her own for less than a year. "I said, 'No, I'm going to give him one more chance going long on turf.'"

That chance produced a nose win in a second-level allowance race April 26 at Churchill. A month later, Captain Nicholas climbed the class ladder and nearly won again, this time despite stumbling badly at the start. Sunday, he returns in the Sea o'Erin, and before dismissing Captain Nicholas as unqualified, know that this is a horse transformed.

"He's just blossomed. He's probably put on 100 pounds of muscle since I got him," Maker said.

Maker has had great success this year with grass horses and horses new to her stable. But, there's no real secret to what she's doing. "I train to the individual," she said. "I go on what I see day by day."

Right now, she likes what she sees in Captain Nicholas.

Not much good news lately

Sue's Good News, trainer Steve Hobby's unbeaten 3-year-old filly, would have been in an overnight stakes race here Saturday, but the race failed to fill. Instead, she worked an easy half-mile in about 51 seconds Friday.

Sue's Good News has had nothing but bad luck this spring. She had a minor illness just before an intended start in the Dogwood at Churchill, and also had a minor problem that kept her out of a stakes race here two weeks ago.

* Fifteen Rounds remained unbeaten in three starts with a win here Thursday, but he had to work for it. Fifteen Rounds won a second-level allowance by a half-length, but Guapazo was quickly eating into his lead in the final half-furlong.