Updated on 09/15/2011 1:30PM

Ready for a bite out of Gold Cup


INGLEWOOD, Calif. - Bob Baffert was being very brave, or very foolhardy. Here he was, about to launch an expensive legal battle over a drug positive that he contends was the result of contamination, and he was letting reporters enter his high-powered shed row at Santa Anita Park.

Who knows where they had been?

Even more alarming, one of them was standing at the stall of a dark chestnut with a long, thin blaze. The horse was fiddling with his hayrack, treating it like a bag of chips, and begging for attention. Then suddenly - horrors! - the horse dropped his tongue, inviting the reporter to play. The reporter grabbed hold and pulled, and they stood that way for awhile, engaged in a slippery game of tug-o-war, while Baffert moved on to other stalls.

Who knows where that hand had been?

In fact, since he had last washed his hands, the reporter had come into direct contact with four white chocolate chip cookies from home, a can of Diet Pepsi, the steering wheel of his car (recently wiped with ArmorAll), a Nokia cell phone in a lambskin Radio Shack case, a Bic metal-point pen with a Churchill Downs logo, and shaken the hands of at least two other trainers and one 13-year-old boy.

Who knows where that 13-year-old boy had been?

All in all, it appeared as if there might exist the potential for accidental exposure to any number of illegal substances. Hopefully, the environmental detritus transmitted by the filthy human will have passed harmlessly through the horse by Sunday afternoon and be rendered undetectable to those hardworking folks at Truesdail Laboratories, where California postrace tests are sent for analysis.

If not, Captain Steve may have a problem.

Captain Steve runs on Sunday in the $750,000 Hollywood Gold Cup. If he is not favored, it will be only because the public prefers two solid chances for the price of one. Captain Steve's main challenger in the 10-furlong event will come from the Bobby Frankel entry of Skimming and Aptitude, both owned by Juddmonte Farm.

The Gold Cup will represent a full turn of the circle for Captain Steve. A son of Fly So Free, originally purchased for $70,000 by Mike Pegram, he made his competitive debut in the last race of the program on Hollywood Gold Cup day in 1999. He finished sixth, but neither Pegram nor Baffert could complain. Earlier that same afternoon they won the Gold Cup with Real Quiet.

No one knew it at the time, but the baton had been passed. Real Quiet never raced again, while Captain Steve has done nothing but rock and roll ever since. After winning a maiden race in his next start at Del Mar, he has gone on to race at 10 more tracks, from Iowa to Dubai, earning $6.5 million along the way.

If local form means anything at all, Captain Steve should be at his best at Hollywood Park. In late 1999 he won the Hollywood Futurity by four. Last summer he won the Swaps Stakes by 2 1/2 lengths, beating Tiznow in the process. But of more importance, at least to Baffert's eye, is the fact that Captain Steve has become a finished product.

"I love the way he filled out," the trainer said. "He could have gotten taller, but he didn't. Instead he muscled up and got hard. He's not that big, but he's got great conformation."

It is Captain Steve's physical construction that gives him an efficient, economical stride that has carried him to distances that were not necessarily suggested by his pedigree. Races like the Derby and the Preakness came too soon in his development (he survived them anyway), but as he aged, he became competitive with the best at nine and 10 furlongs.

After Captain Steve's flag-waving romp in the Dubai World Cup, Baffert and his staff tended to blame the colt's second-place finish in the recent Stephen Foster Handicap on fitness rather than post-Dubai stress syndrome.

"Bob never really backed off on his training when Captain Steve got back from Dubai, so he never really lost any condition," said Jim Barnes, who runs Baffert's Santa Anita barn.

The change in Captain Steve from age 2 to 4 has been more than physical. As a baby, he was easygoing. Little children could reach up and hang from his tongue if they pleased. Now, he plays a little rougher.

"He's bitten everybody in the barn but me," Baffert said. "And he got a pretty good piece of my shirt one day. When he was at Churchill Downs, I saw a woman at the next barn with the fingers on one hand all taped up. She said a horse bit her. I said, 'Captain Steve?' She looked surprised and said, 'How did you know?'"

Captain Steve responded by taking a nip in the direction of his trainer and sticking out about an inch of tongue.

"Now he uses that tongue thing as bait, so you'll get close enough to bite," the trainer warned.

Makes you wonder if there's a rule against testing positive for human flesh. We might find out after Sunday.