10/16/2003 11:00PM

Mullins keeping his hopes real

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ARCADIA, Calif. - For a guy accustomed to winning this year with one of every three horses he starts, trainer Jeff Mullins has adopted a surprisingly realistic attitude about the chances of Captain Squire in the .

"He'll be a longshot," Mullins said. "We're going to enter up and take what we can get.

At peak form, Captain Squire would be a leading contender in the Sprint. But the 4-year-old gelding will enter after finishing a modest second in the Ancient Title Handicap. Most handicappers did not like the race.

"I didn't either," Mullins admitted. "The race didn't set up like we anticipated. We hoped a couple horses would be winging and soften things up. But nobody went, so we had to go to hold our spot."

The strategy led to a second-place finish, beaten 1 1/2 lengths, that earned an ordinary Beyer Speed Figure of 103. Captain Squire made no late impact, though he dug in and would not let third-place finisher Bluesthestandard get past.

Captain Squire, said Mullins, has "never ever really let a horse get by him. But he's never charged up to go by one in the stretch, either."

Captain Squire added blinkers for the Ancient Title, but they will be removed for the Sprint. "I just didn't think they made any difference," Mullins said. "If he does happen to make the lead, or be close, I want him to be able to see what's coming."

Robert Bone and Jeffrey Diener own Captain Squire, who has won five races and $753,925 from 15 starts and was slated for a half-mile gate work Saturday. Mullins has won 31 percent of his starts this year (73 for 234), but recognizes that Captain Squire faces a tall order. A graded stakes winner who earned a 112 Beyer Figure in July and a 117 in January, Captain Squire's last two starts suggest he may have tailed off. He will be the first Breeders' Cup starter for Mullins.

"I've got mixed emotions about it," he said. "You hate to be in a race just to be in the Breeders' Cup. It was like when I took Lusty Latin to the Kentucky Derby - I was there just to be there."

Captain Squire runs best with more time between starts than the 20-day gap between the Ancient Title and the Breeders' Cup, but the decision to run was ultimately up to the 4-year-old's owners. Bone, said, Mullins, "knows that the horse won't rebound that well. And that's why I've changed his training. It's like he said, this might be my only chance to be in the Breeders' Cup."

Since the Ancient Title, Mullins has trained Captain Squire lightly by ponying him instead of full gallops. He said Captain Squire will only be schooled between the Saturday workout and the Sprint. If nothing else, the sprinter will be a keg of dynamite by race day. Said Mullins, "He'll dig in, he'll hold a horse off, and the S.O.B. has surprised me before."

* The announcement that Congaree will not run in the Sprint - "It's the Classic or nothing" trainer Bob Baffert said - means all the other 14 horses pre-entered are assured a spot.