03/14/2003 12:00AM

Gamble pays off on Capt. Fly Hook

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ALBANY, Calif. - Trainer Gloria Buckridge made one of the smartest investments in her racing career when she nominated Capt. Fly Hook to Sunday's $150,000 Golden Gate Breeders' Cup Handicap. She hoped the field might be small, and her gamble paid off as only three other runners entered the 1 1/8-mile turf race.

Three of the four entrants are based locally, Ninebanks, Surprise Halo, and Capt. Fly Hook.

Royal Gem, winner of last fall's Bay Meadows Derby, was also entered by trainer Bobby Frankel. While he would appear the probable favorite, his status is uncertain coming into the race.

Humberto Ascanio, Frankel's assistant, said earlier in the week that Frankel didn't want to run the 4-year-old colt if it rained.

As it stands, Buckridge's $100 nomination fee will net her a minimum of $11,250, which she would get for finishing fourth.

"At this time of year with the rain and races all over, we've seen races like this come up with only three or four horses before," said Buckridge, a part-owner of the 6-year-old Capt. Fly Hook "We thought for $100, we should look at it."

Capt. Fly Hook is the lightweight of the field at 114 pounds as he makes his first stakes appearance since a third-place finish in the Governor's Handicap last summer at Sacramento.

He may end up the highest price on the board, but Buckridge doesn't consider him a longshot.

"As we started looking at it earlier this week, we thought we could be part of it," she said.

"It's going to rain. They're not hedging about that. My horse likes a yielding course, and he's versatile."

Capt. Fly Hook was third in a three-way photo in his last start Feb. 23 over a course labeled good. He was second over yielding turf in November.

Royal Gem, the 118-pound highweight, seems a bit vulnerable if he does go. He would be making his first start since finishing third in the Hollywood Derby on Dec. 1.

Surprise Halo seems the likely candidate to take the lead in a paceless field. He set the pace in the $100,000 Tanforan Handicap here Feb. 8 when he finished third to Seinne and Sligo Bay.

"That wasn't his style, but we got the 1-hole and had a little speed so we decided to use it," owner-trainer Dennis Ward said of Surprise Halo's effort in the Tanforan.

Surprise Halo drew the rail again for this race. He sat close to the pace, taking over in the lane on a yielding course when he beat Capt. Fly Hook by a length in November.

"He's better off running at something, but he's versatile," Ward said.

Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has freshened Ninebanks since a race in the Sunshine Millions on Jan. 26. He will probably have the 5-year-old Ninebanks, who lost by a neck to David Copperfield in the $200,000 Bay Meadows Breeders' Cup Handicap last fall, sit just off Surprise Halo.

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