Monday, Feb. 5, 2001 | 11:12 a.m.
Ralph Siraco's horse racing column appears Monday, and his Southern California selections run Tuesday through Friday. Reach him c/o Las Vegas Sun, 800 S. Valley View Blvd., Las Vegas, NV 89107.
Trainer Bob Baffert is at it again. Usually at this time of year, Baffert is in the limelight with a horse -- or two, or three -- on the road to the Kentucky Derby. Baffert, after all, did all but own America's most famous horse race for a good run in the 1990s.
Well, while Baffert plays the shell game with his Derby stars this year, the silver-haired conditioner was also playing a bicoastal shell game with two of his stable's stars in the handicap division. At least over this past weekend.
Baffert's latest Derby refugee is Captain Steve. Although Captain Steve could only boast of participating in last year's Derby -- finishing a dismal eighth to Fusaichi Pegasus -- he has matured into a force in the early stages of this year's handicap division.
After a fourth-place finish in last year's Preakness Stakes, Captain Steve reeled off five consistent performances before the Breeders' Cup Classic, where he finished third to winner Tiznow.
So after a short freshening, Captain Steve was back training in Southern California preparing for his 4-year-old debut.
And, so was Tiznow.
Captain Steven had beaten Tiznow in the Swaps Stakes in July, but Tiznow had turned the tables with back-to-back late-season victories in the Goodwood and Breeders' Cup Classic.
Tiznow fired the first salvo with a workmanlike victory in the Jan. 13 San Fernando Breeders' Cup Stakes. Tiznow extended his winning streak to four in the race.
Baffert had Captain Steve ready to run and was mapping out a schedule that would avoid Tiznow -- at least for now.
While Tiznow was pointed toward last Saturday's Strub Stakes at Santa Anita, Baffert decided to put the good Captain on an airplane and head for the sunnier skies of South Florida.
The Grade I Donn Handicap was also Saturday. And, although it attracted a representative field of handicap runners, there were no Tiznows in the bunch.
Good news for Captain Steve. Bad news for East-based stakes horses.
Captain Steve stepped off the plane and quickly took to the Gulfstream Park track. A finicky horse-for-course racing surface that has been the demise of many a champions, the Donn Handicap host track felt fine to the Captain.
Only one contender in the Donn field was thought to be a serious threat to Captain Steve. That was the Nick Zito trainee Albert The Great. Although Albert The Great did not compete in the Triple Crown run, he did have one meeting with Captain Steve. While Tiznow was winning the Breeders' Cup Classic, Albert finished fourth, just behind Captain Steve.
When Albert The Great decided to change his running style from a free-running speed type to a rate-from-off-the-pace type, jockey Jerry Bailey placed Captain Steve in the role of pacesetter. Captain Steve scooted through the first seven furlongs of the 1 1/8-mile race before Albert threatened.
As they turned into the homestretch, Albert menaced the Captain before Bailey asked for another gear. Captain Steve pulled clear to prevail and Albert The Great suffered his second straight defeat to Captain Steve while solidly holding the runner-up spot by a 10-length margin.
About an hour after Captain Steve had polished off the $500,000 pot at Gulfstream Park, Baffert was sending out the "B-Team" at Santa Anita in the Strub Stakes.
Tiznow was the prohibitive odds-on favorite to romp in the $500,000 1 1/8-mile feature on Saturday, but a scenic trip took its toll on the newly named Horse Of The Year.
Baffert had decided to give Wooden Phone another shot at the champ. Jockey Corey Nakatani employed the same tactics as the San Fernando with Wooden Phone -- nothing fancy, just go for the lead and hold it as far as he can. While Wooden Phone was engaged in a three-way duel for the lead, Tiznow was ambling along four and then five wide throughout the race. Wooden Phone disposed of his early rivals as Tiznow rolled to him in upper stretch.
There was no denying the solid victory by Baffert's "B-horse," Wooden Phone.