As a third-generation horseman, trainer Thomas "Ray" Bell II is no stranger to good horses. He has tightened the girth on a number of quality stakes winners over his lifetime, most notably grade 1 winner Twice the Vice and standout California runner Flying Victor, who was fourth in the 1987 Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I). So when Vicken and Suzy Meguerditchian's Capitano came along, 49-year-old Bell knew the son of Belong to Me was special.
Funny thing was, nobody else did. When Capitano broke his maiden at Hollywood Park by a half-length and paid $220 for a $2 wager, the only person not surprised was Bell. And since then, Bell continues to be the only one not surprised by the colt's ability to overachieve and is perplexed by the colt's lack of respect as a serious contender in Saturday's Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I).
"Initially Patrick Valenzuela was supposed to ride him in that first race, but he had to take off because of another commitment. And my name's not Bob Baffert, otherwise he'd probably have been 8-1 or lower because he had been working really well. Another jockey, Anthony Lovato, had been working the colt in the mornings and I felt kind of bad taking him off anyway, so it was easy to put him back on. When (Capitano) left the paddock he was 20- or 30-1 and kept on going up. By the time he got to the gate he was 99-1. I was surprised by that, not the fact he won."
Capitano is no blue blood, his $53,000 sales price at the Keeneland September yearling sale is not at the upper end of the market, and he doesn't come from high-profile connections. But he's got a heart much larger than his diminutive chestnut body, and the talent to match.
The son of Belong to Me -- Heavenly Cat (by Tabasco Cat) was bred in Pennsylvania by Elizabeth Moran's Brushwood Stable. He was bought privately by his current owners through Bell. Since he made himself known on that July day at Hollywood Park, Capitano has raced way beyond expectations to pick up two graded stakes placings -- a third in the Best Pal Stakes (gr. III) at Del Mar and a second in the Oct. 4 Norfolk Stakes (gr. II) -- and earn a spot in the Breeders' Cup gate.
But it almost never happened.
"He's a nice little horse," Bell said. "He's a very genuine, hard trying overachiever. He's very consistent at whatever level he seems to be competitive at. After his race in the Best Pal at Del Mar, we found out exactly what kind of a horse he was. Thinking in the long-term, we sat out the Del Mar Futurity (gr. II) to get ready for the Norfolk and then possibly the Breeders' Cup. Good thing we did because he ran well and has continued to improve."
But was he good enough and would he improve enough to make up the 14 lengths he finished behind Ruler's Court in the Norfolk? That was the question on Bell's mind and the only reason for any hesitation for running in the World Thoroughbred Championships.
"We were going to wait and have a fit, healthy and rested horse for a 3-year-old campaign, but when we found out Ruler's Court wasn't going to go, we knew we had as good a shot as any horse to not only run well, but to win. He impressed me going 1 1/16 miles the first time," Bell said. "He thought he won the race, actually, he was so far behind Ruler's Court. If the Breeders' Cup were being held elsewhere we would have probably passed, but because it's here over his home track we decided to give him a shot. He also earned it."
Capitano's odds come post time for the Juvenile will no doubt be double digits, which will not surprise Bell. Nor will he be surprised if he reaches the winner's circle.