06/28/2001 11:00PM

The puzzling dichotomy of Captain Steve

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PHOENIX - Two voices carry the debate in your head.

"He should have won the Foster," says one.

"It was his first race since March, in Dubai no less," says the other.

"But a right Captain Steve hasn't seen a day in his life when he can't handle Guided Tour, even off the layoff," says the naysayer.

"Hey, they're not machines. He darn near won a very big race. And I'll tell you one thing: it means he's a right Captain Steve today for the Hollywood Gold Cup," and so on.

Despite the presence of quality foes like Skimming, Futural, and Aptitude, the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup Sunday boils down to this: Is Captain Steve right and ready? If he isn't, then he's ripe for the plucking.

He did run very well in the Stephen Foster at Churchill a few weeks ago in his first start since winning the March 25 Dubai World Cup. He got a great trip stalking the pace, but Guided Tour came up huge to run him down late.

Trainer Bob Baffert says that the Hollywood Gold Cup is the race he was pointing for all along, that the Foster was still a jumping-off point after Dubai. And no one knows like Baffert the effects of the Dubai trip.

That brings us to the negative. Behrens is really the only horse to run well in Dubai, and ever return to his former form. And it took him a year. Cigar, Soul of the Matter, Silver Charm, Public Purse: None of them was ever quite the same. Could that be the case with Captain Steve?

And what about the Gold Cup's distance, 10 furlongs? Yes, the World Cup was also at 1 1/4 miles, but it wasn't the strongest running of that race, and Captain Steve didn't seem to power home in the final furlong. His other 10-furlong races were good (like his third in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic), but they weren't great.

Skimming is surely quicker, and figures to be on the lead, with Captain Steve likely stalking from second, and Futural in third. Does Captain Steve bide his time, then chase after a fast, talented Skimming? Or does he take the aggressive approach, as he did in the Foster, possibly leaving himself vulnerable in the final furlong to a charge from Futural or Aptitude?

A win by Captain Steve can throw water on the naysayers. It would prove he's back, prove he's top-class at 10 furlongs, and leave him a path to the top of the division. A loss, however, will emphasize all the question marks, and leave the game looking for a leader.

A note about the others: Don't be surprised if Skimming and Futural run big again. Skimming is proven going this far when he makes the lead. Futural is underrated, and has blossomed into a top horse for Craig Dollase, who saw fit to supplement him to the race. With Captain Steve around 4-5, and the Skimming-Aptitude entry 6-5 or so, Futural may be quite playable at around 4-1.

Suburban: Beware Traditionally

Sunday's Grade 2 Suburban at Belmont also figures to answer many questions. With Red Bullet yet to return, a number of horses are looking to take up the mantle as top gun in the East. Albert the Great currently holds that slot, but he's hardly secure. Include, who faces him again in the Suburban, handled him nicely in the Pimlico Special, then came back to win the Mass Cap. Bud Delp has called Include the best horse he has had, aside from the great Spectacular Bid.

But the depth in the race hardly ends there. Unshaded, a non-factor in the Foster, may have still been a bit short that day. He returns to New York, where he won the Travers last year, and may be ready for his best.

The most interesting entrant, however, is Traditionally. On the verge of stardom after a huge Oaklawn Handicap win, he imploded in that strange Met Mile. Maybe he didn't like the off track; Maybe he was victimized by trainer Shug McGaughey's slump (McGaughey has said his horses aren't eating well and don't seem to be thriving).

Albert the Great figures to be right on the lead, as usual, but Jerry Bailey on Include doesn't figure to let him get away. If Traditionally is ready to return to his sparkling spring form, the handicap division could have yet another big gun looking toward the summer/fall shootout.