08/16/2001 11:00PM

Futural should like the distance

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PHOENIX - The old saying goes, you can't beat what you can't catch. That may very well apply to Sunday's Grade 1, $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar, where Skimming looks to defend his crown.

It's not just his speed that gives Skimming a tactical edge. He thrives at Del Mar. He's 3 for 3 over the track, with two San Diego Handicap wins along with that 2000 Pacific Classic title. His three local Beyer Speed Figures are 113, 116, and 118. And his trainer, Bobby Frankel, has won five of the 10 Pacific Classics that have been run.

But you're not going to get rich on Skimming at 6-5 or 7-5. Besides, watching the final furlong of this year's San Diego gave me the feeling that another horse will relish the added ground.

Futural has finished ahead of Skimming in two of their four meetings, including the only time they met at 1 1/4 miles, in the Hollywood Gold Cup on July 1. Unfortunately for Futural, he was disqualified for bumping Skimming in the lane. Still, there was no doubt that Futural was the best horse that day.

While Skimming cruised on an easy lead in the San Diego four weeks later, Futural and jockey Chris McCarron sat well back early. You knew before they had straightened away down the backstretch that Futural was in trouble. But he made a strong, steady move to get within earshot of Skimming turning for home. He couldn't close the gap any more, however, losing by a length. It looked eerily like the finish of the Californian back in June, when Futural chased Skimming the same way.

Despite the loss, Futural's San Diego was very good and should set him up perfectly for Sunday's race. Don't be surprised if McCarron, as he did in the Gold Cup, asks Futural to move earlier. Maybe the move to 1 1/4 miles can make up that length he was lacking in the San Diego, as it did in the Gold Cup.

The big question mark in the Pacific Classic is Captain Steve. He can no doubt win if he is back to his best, but should we expect he will be? The lingering questions about how well horses run after a trip to Dubai persist. Yes, he ran big in defeat in the Stephen Foster, but he backed out of it a bit too readily in the Gold Cup and ran like a tired horse in the San Diego. Jockey Gary Stevens started riding him hard early in the San Diego, and he made little impression.

Trainer Bob Baffert said after the horse's good recent work that he may be ready to get his groove back. Those who stay on the bandwagon will get the best price they've gotten on Captain Steve in a year, but which Captain Steve will show up?

Officer the real deal

I'm a believer now.

If you didn't see Officer win Wednesday's Best Pal at Del Mar you really missed something. I admit I was skeptical; he hadn't run very fast in his easy wins in his first two career starts, earning Beyers of 89 and 88, and had beaten very weak competition. But in the Best Pal he won in a gallop by seven for a 106 Beyer and was never asked for run. There's no telling how good this colt is.

Although Officer beat just two horses, they were no slouches. Essence of Dubai, a Godolphin hopeful, had graduated in grand style at Hollywood, earning a 92 Beyer. He's bred to be a champ (by Pulpit out of 2-year-old champ Epitome) and cost $2.3 million at auction. Metatron had given Came Home a legitimate scare in the Hollywood Juvenile last month. Neither could get near Officer.

This sets the stage for a wonderful match between Officer and Came Home in the seven-furlong Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 5. Came Home ran a 105 Beyer when he drilled Metatron by open lengths in the Hollywood Juvenile. I can hardly wait.

Good decision

You don't hear people criticizing Chris McCarron anymore about that decision he made in April, do you? He gave up his mount on Millennium Wind for the Blue Grass, and after the colt romped under Laffit Pincay Jr., many were questioning McCarron's judgment to stay in Southern California to ride some turf horse named Bienamado.

Well, Bienamado has won three stakes since and could be considered one of the best turf horses America has seen in years. McCarron also rides Tiznow, who is working marvelously for his return, and Futural in the Pacific Classic.

Millennium Wind was nowhere in the Derby and hasn't been seen since. McCarron and agent Scotty McClellan haven't achieved what they have by making rash decisions.