08/28/2001 11:00PM

Best of West, Habibti ready to conquer rest


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Point Given may become Horse of the Year, but 2001 is more accurately the year of the 2-year-old.

The talent in this year's 2-year-old crop, both male and female, is extraordinary. Consider the events of the last two weeks:

* You and Cashier's Dream race 6 1/2 furlongs in the Adirondack in 1:15.16 - faster than Affirmed and Alydar did in the 1977 Hopeful.

* Officer remained untouchable with a seven-length score in the Best Pal Stakes.

* And Habibti won the seven-furlong Del Mar Debutante in 1:22.22, tied for the fastest time in that race over the last seven years.

You and Cashier's Dream, who each earned a 107 Beyer Speed Figure in the Adirondack, have become the darlings of handicappers and the media. Yet Officer and Habibti were no less impressive.

I didn't have an opportunity to watch Officer win the Best Pal on live television. But I quickly heard the news of his win, and was urged to check out the replay.

"You've got to see this," one of my handicapping friends told me, laughing.

At the time I didn't know what he found so humorous. I assumed it was the fact that Officer faced just two opponents. That wasn't the reason. No, it was the way in which the horse laughed at the competition.

Winning jockey Victor Espinoza merely steered the horse. His hands never moved and Officer essentially breezed 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.09, earning a 106 Beyer Speed Figure.

What does a win against two opponents prove? I guess only that this horse scares the living daylights out of every trainer in California.

Meanwhile, the handicappers who watched this race can't stop laughing.

Habibti's win in the Del Mar Debutante was a bit more serious. Yet even this time, Espinoza didn't have much use for his stick.

She won under an energetic hand ride, easily defeating a good field that included Tempera - who had been regarded by some as the best 2-year-old filly on the West Coast.

Not any more. Habibti is now tops in the West.

Since watching this filly win her debut in a stakes-quality maiden race early in the Del Mar meet, I have been extraordinarily high on her. Having watched her race Sunday, I firmly believe You and Cashier's Dream will be hard-pressed to beat her when she heads east this fall.

Why the reason for all the enthusiasm? The strength of the race.

The Del Mar Debutante is consistently the best race for 2-year-old fillies run in California. It attracts California's top fillies, before some of them head east to run at Keeneland or Belmont.

The power of this race is evidenced by the list of recent winners. Over the last five years, eventual millionaires Sharp Cat, Excellent Meeting, and Chilukki all won the Del Mar Debutante.

None of those fillies ran faster than Habibti. Only Call Now and Sardula ran a bit quicker, during the early 1990's, and Sardula went on to win the Kentucky Oaks in 1994.

What was most striking about Habibti was not so much her final time, but how she won. She got an education by being in tight quarters between horses, then shot through a narrow opening on the inside.

From there she exploded by running her final three-eighths in just over 36 seconds, despite loafing a bit in the closing sixteenth of a mile.

Bob Baffert, who trains both Habibti and Officer for the Thoroughbred Corp., said Habibti's next prep for the Juvenile Fillies will come in the Oak Leaf at Santa Anita or the Frizette at Belmont.

You and Cashier's Dream had better be ready.