07/27/2001 12:00AM

San Diego may boil down to two horses


PHOENIX - Funny how a horse's stock can be as volatile as a dot-com on the NASDAQ.

But that's the way things have been for Captain Steve. In the winter, Captain Steve won the Donn at Gulfstream with disdain. That was no small feat. A horse named Albert the Great was in his wake. Then came a strong win in Dubai, and even though he lost in his comeback in the Foster at Churchill he had excuses (shipping back from Dubai, the layoff, etc.).

But Captain Steve grew colder than Amazon.com in the wake of a disappointing fourth in the Hollywood Gold Cup. It was the severity of the defeat that had many pooh-poohing his ranking among the elite. He attempts to remedy that in Sunday's Grade 2 San Diego at Del Mar.

The competition has come out of the woodwork. It could be the West's best race of the year for older horses, should all the main protagonists go. Here's the tale of the tape:

Budroyale: He has certainly been a warrior, and there's little doubt that on his best day that he can not only run with these, he can beat these. But is it reasonable to assume that he's ready to give his best off an injury and so much down time?

Captain Steve: The key is how to judge his Hollywood Gold Cup dud. Sure, he got bumped into the lane, but he has always been a fighter. The fact that he gave way rather than fought back is a bit disconcerting. However, he had already been to Dubai and back, and maybe that race and trip, and the good second to Guided Tour in the Stephen Foster, took more out of him than it at first appeared. Then he had to ship to Southern California and go 1 1/4 miles, which we know isn't his best distance.

Now he has had a bit more time to put Dubai behind him, has worked well, and most importantly, moves back to 1 1/16 miles. He's still the horse to beat.

Freedom Crest: In the winter he looked positioned to take a run at the top older horse, Tiznow. Then an injury knocked him out of action for a while. Trainer Richard Baltas took his time bringing him back, and the horse responded with a fine runner-up effort in the Bel Air at Hollywood last month.

So, he is apparently back in form, but is he good enough? He has yet to beat the likes of the four he faces here.

Skimming figures to be on the lead, with Budroyale, Captain Steve and Futural in the flight just in behind. Then comes Freedom Crest. At least the pace will be legitimate, and it wouldn't be stunning if someone took an early run at Skimming, which would suit Freedom Crest just fine. Unlike Budroyale, who is coming off a long layoff, and unlike Captain Steve, Futural, and Skimming who have raced hard the past couple months, Freedom Crest may be ready to peak off that prep. He also figures to be a healthy price.

Futural: It's too bad he was disqualified in the Hollywood Gold Cup, because he was the best horse. At least it dispelled any doubts about his ability to compete at the highest level, and about his distance capabilities. But does he have yet another bullet left in him to go after this field on a different track going two furlongs shorter? At least he comes into the race sharp, and he showed in the Gold Cup he has the tactical speed to keep Skimming in his sights.

Skimming: You need look no further than last year's San Diego and Pacific Classic romps to see that he loves Del Mar. The competition in those races, however, might not have been as strong.

Skimming looked good winning the Californian at Hollywood, but got away with murder on the front end. He didn't get crawling fractions in the Gold Cup and was a beaten horse. The other riders know his quality now, too - they don't figure to make the mistakes they made against him last year when they let him get easy leads. But his love for the track can't be overstated.

Analysis: He will be a nice price, but it's tough to believe that Budroyale can be ready to win this off that kind of layoff. Could Futural have topped out with that Hollywood Gold Cup effort? It's hard to believe that Skimming will get a cozy lead here as he did last year.

That leaves Captain Steve and Freedom Crest, who both come with question marks. Is Captain Steve ready to bounce back? Is Freedom Crest good enough? The hunch here is the answers are yes.

The $110 play: a $10 tri keying Captain Steve over Freedom Crest, Skimming, and Futural, $5 tri with Freedom Crest over Captain Steve, Skimming, and Futural and a $10 exacta box of Captain Steve and Freedom Crest.