12/23/2003 12:00AM

Best of the Rest battles jinx

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MIAMI - Best of the Rest has been a beaten favorite in three previous renewals of the Grade 3 Fred W. Hooper Handicap. Still, it's not the Hooper jinx but rather the weight his horse must concede to Aeneas that most concerns trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. heading into Saturday's Hooper, which could be the final start of Best of the Rest's amazing career

Best of the Rest will carry high weight of 122 pounds in the Hooper, conceding seven pounds to defending champion The Judge Sez Who and eight to Aeneas.

"My horse is training great, but I'm really disappointed at the weights," said Plesa. "Aeneas getting in with 114 pounds is a joke. How many graded races has he hit the board in out of town this year? If I wasn't getting ready to retire my horse I'd seriously consider not running Saturday."

Best of the Rest has won 16 of 31 starts, including 3 of 5 this year. He began the year winning the Sunshine Millions Classic, added the Grade 3 Skip Away, and most recently the Carl G. Rose Classic to his impressive resume, increasing his earnings to nearly $1.4 million.

Unfortunately for Plesa and owner-breeder Bea Oxenberg, Best of the Rest has had no luck in the Hooper, having finished third as the 4-5 favorite in 1998, fourth at odds of 3-5 in 2001, and second behind The Judge Sez Who at 8-5 last year.

"It's like a jinx for sure," said Plesa. "Maybe it's because I trained for Mr. Hooper that I can't win this race."

Best of the Rest turns 9 next week and will begin stud duties in 2004, although he could make one final start, in defense of his Sunshine Millions title on Jan. 25.

"We'll sit down and make that decision after this race," Plesa said.

Aeneas has held his own against some of the top handicap horses in the country, although he is still winless on the year. Aeneas finished second behind Hero's Tribute in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Handicap, second to Perfect Drift in the Grade 2 Washington Park Handicap, second to Tenpins in the Grade 3 Iselin Breeders' Cup, third in the Grade 2 Hawthorne Gold Cup, and third in the Grade 2 Clark Handicap.

Aeneas will break from post 1 under Gary Boulanger in the Hooper - another advantage he has over Best of the Rest, who must begin from the outside in post 8.

The Judge Sez Who has started only four times since winning the 2002 Hooper. After finishing a distant fourth in the Skip Away in April, he underwent surgery for a knee injury. He returned off only two works and finished third in the Carl Rose Classic, and has continued to train well since that outing.

Trainer Milt Wolfson, who will saddle The Judge Sez Who in the Hooper, will also send out Stormy Frolic on Saturday in defense of her title in the 1 1/16-mile Stage Door Betty. Stormy Frolic rallied to a 5 1/2-length win last year but has been off her best form since winning the Nancy's Glitter Handicap here on July 19.

Splasha, who easily defeated Stormy Frolic winning the Shocker T. Handicap on Oct. 11, is the horse to beat. A much-improved 3-year-old, Splasha will stretch back to her most effective distance after finishing a late-running third in the seven-furlong Chaposa Springs Handicap two weeks ago.

The Stage Door Betty also marks the return of eight-time stakes winner Cellars Shiraz, who has been idle since late May and may be more effective on turf than dirt. Cellars Shiraz is prepping for a likely return engagement in the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf on Jan. 25.