11/19/2001 12:00AM

Hometown horses formidable for pair of Dec. 29 stakes

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MIAMI - Mr. Pleasentfar and Best of the Rest should give the home team its strongest one-two punch in the turf and dirt handicap divisions in recent memory when the south Florida-based horses make their next starts in major stakes at the end of the Tropical-at-Calder meeting.

Mr. Pleasentfar shipped to Aqueduct to upset Saturday's Grade 2 Red Smith Handicap and will have the home-court advantage when he makes his next start in the Grade 2, $150,000 W.L. McKnight Handicap on Dec. 29. Best of the Rest passed on his scheduled trip to New York for next week's Cigar Mile and instead toyed with an overmatched field in Sunday's $35,000 King Rex Handicap in his final prep for the Grade 3, $100,000 Fred. W. Hooper Handicap, also on Dec. 29.

The steadily improving Mr. Pleasentfar, a Group 1 winner in Brazil, won his second straight stakes and first graded race in this country when he upset Eltawaasul in the 11-furlong Red Smith.

"He's really an interesting horse because he's been all around the world and it's taken him a little while to get Americanized," said trainer Marty Wolfson. "This was a really big win for him because it gives him recognition as well as a graded win on his resume which will increase his value when he's ultimately retired to stud."

Wolfson said he's confident Mr. Pleasentfar will be tough to beat over his home turf in the McKnight, especially with the race carded at 1 1/2 miles.

"The further he goes the better," said Wolfson. "He's really a long winded horse who can lay close and maintain the same pace forever. Of course neither [Bill] Mott nor [Christophe] Clement had anything in the Red Smith, which always makes me more confident. But I'm sure they'll both come up with something for the McKnight."

Best of the Rest overcame a slow start to register a thoroughly one-sided 8 3/4-length victory over Hal's Hope in the 1 1/8-mile King's Rex, the first time the injury- plagued son of Skip Trial has won at that distance.

"On paper that was a pretty competitive field he beat pretty easily," trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. said. "But like I've said before, I'm not afraid of anyone who ships in to face him down here. We took the conservative route by passing the Cigar Mile and staying home. But this was the right spot. Now we'll go on to the Hooper and think positively as far as keeping him healthy for that race."

Hal's Hope showed a new dimension in the King's Rex, rating well off the pace then finishing willingly to easily defeat the others although no match for Best of the Rest.

"We weren't going to beat the winner, but he rated well and finished strong," said regular rider Roger Velez. "He just needs to get used to getting hit with dirt in his face with this kind of running style."

Long-time veterinarian dies

Dr. Joseph Birch, one of the nation's most respected veterinarians for more than five decades, died last week at the age of 78.

Birch, whose son George has carried on the practice in south Florida, treated many of the game's greatest horses, including Secretariet and Mr. Prospector. He also served as regular veterinarian for Hall of Fame trainer Woody Stephens.