10/08/2003 11:00PM

How rusty will Best of the Rest be?

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MIAMI - Eddie Plesa Jr. has trained a laundry list of stakes winners throughout his career. But none has given him more pleasure or satisfaction than Best of the Rest, the fragile but extremely talented veteran who will make his long-awaited return to action as the starting highweight and favorite in Saturday's $100,000 Spend a Buck Handicap.

The Spend a Buck is one of four stakes that make up the undercard on the $1.5 million Festival of the Sun program at Calder.

Best of the Rest has earned more than $1.2 million for owner-breeder Bea Oxenberg despite having been plagued by physical problems since his 2-year-old season. The ailments forced Plesa to lay him up for extended periods on several occasions, the most recent setback caused by minor foot problems that have kept Best of the Rest sidelined since a victory in Gulfstream Park's Grade 3 Skip Away Handicap on April 20. He registered the most important victory of his career over the same track earlier this season in the inaugural Sunshine Millions Classic.

"He just wasn't as comfortable as I'd like to see him, and with nothing to point for here all summer I just decided to give him some time off," said Plesa. "He's been training great but naturally there's always a question of whether he'll be 100 percent fit coming off the layoff."

Best of the Rest has been a fixture in the Spend a Buck. He won the race in 1999 and 2001 and finished second as the 6-5 favorite returning from a three-month vacation last year. He will carry high weight of 122 pounds, including Jerry Bailey, in a race which could mark one of the final starts of his career.

"He'll turn 9 next season and the Oxenbergs are looking into the possibility of standing him as a stallion in 2004," Plesa said. "It just depends on the quality of mares they can book over the next several months. If that doesn't work out then he'll stay in training for another year."

With the versatile Tour of the Cat in the lineup, Best of the Rest will have his work cut out if he's to win a third Spend a Buck. Tour of the Cat has already won the Grade 2 Richter Scale at seven furlongs and the Grade 3 Miami Mile Breeders' Cup Handicap this year.

Dancing Guy, who finished second behind Best of the Rest in both the 1999 and 2001 Spend a Buck, will be back for another try, along with Lavender's Lad, Longford Arms, Sebastian Light, Patriotic Flame, and R. Associate.

The $100,000 Shocker T. Handicap has drawn a well-matched field of 12 older fillies and mares. Saintly Action, a 4-year-old Saint Ballado filly from trainer Bill Mott's barn, may be the slight choice under Bailey coming off a pair of allowance victories, including a win by more than 11 lengths at Monmouth just 17 days ago.

The locals are led by the speedy Win's Fair Lady, who will attempt to wire the field as she did winning the Wayward Lass at Tampa Bay Downs and Calder's Bimini Flyer Stakes earlier this year.

Stormy Frolic, a two-time stakes winner earlier this season, and Scottish Bubbly also demand respect in a lineup that includes Sierra Lady, Scapade, Hannah's Temper, Splasha, Gentille Alouette, Ms Brookski, Sara's Success, and Chit Chatter.

A pair of six-furlong sprints for 2-year-olds, the $75,000 Birdonthewire and its filly counterpart, the $75,000 Cassidy, complete the stakes lineup.

Wynn Dot Comma, Misguided Light, and Kipper's Night, who is also cross-entered in the $400,000 In Reality Stakes, head the field for the Birdonthewire. Our Exploit, Usual Manner, Family Favorite, and Zak's Precocious should battle for top honors in the Cassidy. Family Favorite has also been entered in the $400,000 My Dear Girl.