In May 1988, trainer Paul McGee made the largest claim of his short career. He spent $25,000 on a sprinter named Bet the Pot, then watched the race nervously on a TV monitor at Churchill Downs.

Bet the Pot dropped out of contention, leaving McGee and co-owner Jim Shields transfixed on the finish line for the horse's arrival. It never came.

Fearing the worst, they rushed to the racetrack and saw a horse ambulance moving toward Bet the Pot, who had stopped running a furlong from the wire.

"I thought he broke down," McGee said. "I thought we had claimed a dead one."

But Bet the Pot was up and walking without obvious lament, and McGee went about identifying the problem. There were worms in the colt's belly and an infected mass of green and purple around a rear ankle. After working on Bet the Pot a few weeks, McGee galloped him in front of a well-known veterinarian who advised, "Shoot the sonofabitch and get a new one."

Today, about $250,000 later, Bet the Pot is stepping spryly with the General George Stakes right in his path. One of two $200,000 sprints at Laurel Saturday, it had a field of 11 older males when entries were drawn yesterday, while the Barbara Fritchie Handicap contained 10 older females.

After McGee claimed Bet the Pot three summers ago, he wasn't looking for stakes-race nomination forms; in racing vernacular, he was looking to "cheat" by putting Bet the Pot in a cheap claming race.

"I told the guys we'd run him on a jam job," McGee said. "Ten thousand, 7,500, a nickel."

The colt was gelded and equipment changed before McGee, 28, trained the horse a first time. "With everything that had happened, I wanted him to go easy," he said, and figured he'd taken Bet the Pot a half-mile in 52 seconds one morning at Churchill Downs. After he saw the clock stopped at 48, the jam lost its zest and a surprising tale began to unfold.

Bet the Pot has set foot in only one claiming race for McGee -- at $50,000 -- and now approaches the General George off his second stakes victory, the Forego at Turfway Park. He's due to face graded stakes winner Profit Key and local sensation Fire Plug. McGee usually is skeptical, but not in this instance.

"When he gets aggressive and wants to run off with me, he's usually at his best," McGee said after Bet the Pot behaved that way yesterday morning.