Touted a star, Officer gets chance to shine

Breeders' Cup race is test for 2-year-old

October 26, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ELMONT, N.Y. - On the afternoon of Sept. 5 at Del Mar racetrack in California, the torch was passed.

Point Given, leading candidate for Horse of the Year, was paraded before the third race for an adoring audience that was still reeling from the announcement the week before of the 3-year-old colt's retirement due to a tendon injury. Four races later, a 2-year-old named Officer won the Del Mar Futurity for his fourth straight victory.

Just as in 1995 when Cigar defeated champion Holy Bull in the Donn Handicap for the fourth of what would become 16 straight wins, Officer inherited from Point Given racing's cloak of stardom. Tomorrow, the undefeated Officer will attempt to justify his standing in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park.

The Juvenile is one of eight stakes that make up the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships, the richest day in North American racing. Although each race is sort of its own Kentucky Derby, the Juvenile is one of the most anticipated because it previews future stars.

This year, it features a 2-year-old already proclaimed by some a star. After winning five races without feeling the sting of his jockey's whip or the challenge of another horse, Officer is being heralded as, well, as his trainer Bob Baffert says in an affected, dramatic voice, a "supa-star."

Of course, stardom in racing is fleeting, once achieved. Officer, despite the hype, has not yet achieved it. He has generated excitement and stirred hopes. But until he races in the Breeders' Cup, until he races next year in the Triple Crown series, and until he races against older horses later next year, Officer is a star in the making.

David Hofmans, who trains Siphonic, one of Officer's chief opponents in the Juvenile, says the same thing is happening with Officer that happened last year with Point Given. He is being anointed king without earning the crown.

"We all heard the same thing before the Derby," Hofmans said, referring to last year's Kentucky Derby in which Point Given, the favorite, finished fifth. "It's kind of crazy.

"Officer is a very talented colt. But he's got to prove that he's great. I've seen Secretariat get beat, and this is no Secretariat."

Officer drew post 2 in the Juvenile's 12-horse field. That displeased Baffert, who wanted Officer outside so he and his jockey, Victor Espinoza, could watch the race unfold and respond accordingly. On the inside, Officer might be forced to expend valuable energy early to stay clear of horses angling to the rail.

Last year in the Juvenile, Point Given drew post 1 in a 14-horse field. As good as Point Given was, he was shuffled back to last and forced to circle the field 10-wide. He just missed winning by a nose. He won seven of his next eight races, losing only the Derby, before incurring the career-ending injury.

Baffert, who has trained four champions (Chilukki, Real Quiet, Silverbulletday and Silver Charm), says Point Given is the best horse he has trained, but that Officer is his best 2-year-old.

"He's the most precocious horse I've had at this point," Baffert said. "I don't know if he'll turn out as good as Point Given, but he's got all the tools."

Officer has won his five races by a combined 26 1/4 lengths. In his last victory, in the Grade I Champagne Stakes three weeks ago at Belmont, Espinoza barely moved aboard the smooth-striding colt. He eased him up well before the wire, but still he won by nearly four lengths.

"We've never turned him loose, even in the mornings," Baffert said. "I guess for a million bucks we might have to let him out a notch."

Officer's main threats appear to be Came Home, Johannesburg and Hofman's Siphonic. A member of the first crop of 2-year-olds by Siphon, Siphonic has won both his races under jockey Chris McCarron with a maturity unusual in a 2-year-old.

"He has the greatest mind of any horse I've ever been around," said Hofmans, who trained Touch Gold when he upset Silver Charm in the Belmont and Alphabet Soup when he upset Cigar in the Breeders' Cup Classic. "He's laid back and intelligent.

"Chris said that in his last race [a six-length romp in the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland], Siphonic acted like an older horse, like he'd run a hundred times. Chris said, `He was waiting for me to tell him what to do.' "

Jerry Bailey will ride Siphonic in the Juvenile, in which the colt drew a post position even more disadvantageous than Officer's. Siphonic drew the 1.

"He probably couldn't have gotten a worse post," Bailey said. "It's tough to ask a horse in his third race to get buried inside and get all that dirt kicked in his face."

Came Home is an undefeated son of Gone West, trained by Paco Gonzalez. The colt won two races in California by four and eight lengths and then won the Grade I Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga by two lengths.

He hasn't raced since Sept. 1 in the Hopeful, and he hasn't raced beyond seven furlongs (the Juvenile is 1 1/16 miles). He missed his last start with slight swelling in an ankle. Gonzalez says that Came Home missed no training and enters the Juvenile sound and fit.

"He's a good horse," Gonzalez said of Officer. "But I think I've got a good horse, too. Otherwise, why would we have come?"

Johannesburg is an undefeated son of Hennessy who in six races in Europe has established himself as that continent's top sprinter. All his races have been on turf. Despite his dirt breeding, Johannesburg's potential on dirt is unknown.

Having won one more race than Officer has, the Ireland-based colt has caught Baffert's attention. Yesterday, a British journalist pointedly said to Baffert: "The knock across the pond on Officer is that he hasn't beaten anybody."

Baffert, quick with a quip, said: "That's what we hear about Johannesburg."

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