12/26/2002 12:00AM

Best of the Rest tries Hooper for third time

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MIAMI - Trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. takes a third shot with Best of the Rest in the $100,000 Fred Hooper Jr. Handicap, Saturday at Calder.

Best of the Rest was beaten as the odds-on favorite in two of the last three runnings of the 1 1/8-mile Hooper and is likely to start as the public's choice again Saturday, with jockey Jerry Bailey taking the call.

"Fred is sure making it difficult for me to win the race they named in his honor," Plesa said, referring to Hall of Fame owner-breeder Fred Hooper, for whom both he and his father, Eddie Plesa Sr., trained for many years.

Best of the Rest will carry 121 pounds in the Fred Hooper, his 2002 finale. That's one more than he toted when he was the 1 1/2-length winner over The Judge Sez Who in the Carl G. Rose Classic on Nov. 16. And it's one fewer pound than Booklet is assigned for the Hooper - an assignment that could keep Booklet in the barn on Saturday.

"I don't want to take too much out of him with a $1 million race staring us in the face," said Booklet's trainer John Ward, in reference to the $1 million Sunshine Millions Classic at Gulfstream on Jan. 25.

Best of the Rest is also pointing for the Sunshine Classic, a race restricted to Florida- and California-breds. The 7-year-old Best of the Rest will be completing another outstanding campaign, in which he has won 4 of 8 starts, all stakes, and earned nearly $300,000 for owner-breeder Bea Oxenberg.

"He's doing excellent," said Plesa. "He had excuses both previous times he ran in the Hooper. Naturally, I'd be concerned if a horse like Booklet were to get loose on the lead Saturday. That would certainly make him a much more difficult horse to beat."

If he runs, Booklet will be making his second start on the comeback trail after being sent to the sidelines for some rest and relaxation following his 12th-place finish in the Preakness. A son of Notebook, Booklet was a three-quarter-length allowance winner when facing older horses for the first time last month at Churchill Downs.

"The only other time my horse ran against older horses he carried 114 pounds under allowance conditions," said Ward. "Now he's got to go up against a very good 7-year-old like Best of the Rest carrying 122 pounds and giving him a pound."

Booklet isn't the only Grade 1 winner in the eight-horse field. Also entered is Sir Bear, a three-time Grade 1 winner whose form has tailed off since he won the Grade 3 Skip Away Handicap and finished third in the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Handicap earlier this year. Like Best of the Rest and Booklet, he too has designs on the Sunshine Millions.

Coolbythepool leads Stage Door Betty

Coolbythepool will be the solid favorite to win Saturday's $100,000 Stage Door Betty Handicap. Coolbythepool, who along with Castlebrook has led the filly and mare handicap division here the past two seasons, has already won four stakes this year, including the Elmer Heubeck Distaff Handicap on Nov. 16.

Coolbythepool will carry 121 pounds in the Stage Door Betty, conceding her six rivals from seven to nine pounds. The race is also expected to be the career finale for Two Item Limit, who has finished third and seventh in the last two runnings of the Breeders' Cup Distaff and passed the $1 million mark in career earnings earlier this season for owner Joe Graffeo and trainer Steve DiMauro.