10/25/2001 12:00AM

Juvenile: Commanding presence, but a lock?


ELMONT, N.Y. - The devastating ease with which Officer has won his first five starts makes him the overwhelming favorite for Saturday's $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park.

But that same devastating ease has left some to wonder how Officer will react when he finally faces some resistance to his thus-far invincible power. That resistance could come from almost any of his 11 rivals in the 18th and perhaps deepest running of the Juvenile. The field, which consists of five unbeaten horses, has combined to win 18 stakes from 48 starts.

"I think he's beatable," said David Hofmans, trainer of Siphonic, who has won both of his career starts, including the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity. "He's never run in a full field. Here, he's going to have some traffic to overcome. He's obviously the best horse in the race. But, this is going to be the toughest competition he's faced."

Officer figures to be sent off the heaviest favorite on Saturday's World Thoroughbred Championships card, probably at 3-5. In 1993, Dehere finished eighth as the 3-5 favorite in the Juvenile while Easy Goer was upset at 1-5 in 1988.

"It doesn't always go according to the Hollywood script," said trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who knocked off Easy Goer with Is It True and who will look to capture his sixth Juvenile with Jump Start. "Easy Goer comes to mind. . . . I don't think anybody's going to win this in a romp. We've got a legitimate favorite, but I think we're going to see a real race. You can make a case for a bunch of them."

Of course, the strongest case can be made for Officer, the California-bred son of 1991 Juvenile runner-up Bertrando who has won his first five starts by a combined 25 1/4 lengths. He may have been his most impressive winning the Grade 1 Champagne here on Oct. 6 when jockey Victor Espinoza had him virtually pulled up at the wire.

Trainer Bob Baffert shipped Officer back to California to continue his training before sending him back to New York earlier this week. Baffert said Officer has the type of temperament that enables him to handle that.

"He looks better now than he did for the Champagne," said Baffert, who trains Officer for The Thoroughbred Corp. "He's sitting on a really great race. It's going to take a hell of a horse to beat him or bad racing luck. I'm really excited about him."

Officer encountered his first bout of bad racing luck when he drew post 2. An inside post means that Espinoza will probably have to use Officer a little earlier than Baffert would like to avoid getting pinned down inside. It means Officer could try to win the Juvenile on the front end. That's where he could hook up early with fellow Californian Came Home.

"We're hoping he can't be eyeballed," Baffert said. "If he did get looked in the eye, I think he'd pass the test."

Came Home is the horse Baffert believes will give Officer the biggest test. A son of Gone West, Came Home is undefeated in three starts, with victories in the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile and the Grade 1 Hopeful. A minor injury forced him to miss the Norfolk, but his recent training has instilled confidence in his connections.

"I'm going into it like any other race," trainer Paco Gonzalez said. "The horse is training good, it makes me feel very confident."

In the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity, Siphonic had to deal with early pace pressure before drawing off to win by six lengths. Having drawn the rail again, Siphonic may be asked by jockey Jerry Bailey to use that speed again.

The mystery horse in the field is Johannesburg. A son of the 1995 Juvenile runner-up, Hennessy, Johannesburg has won all five of his starts - including three Group 1 events - sprinting on turf. He certainly has the breeding to handle the dirt.

"He's answered every call and he's been very impressive each time," trainer Aidan O'Brien said. "We're not sure about the trip, but we're very happy with him."

Longshot players may want to look at Repent and French Assault, the one-two finishers of the Kentucky Cup Juvenile. Trainer Ken McPeek said Repent is better than Tejano Run, a colt he trained to a third-place finish in the 1994 Juvenile. McPeek said he felt Tejano Run may have run one too many times before the Breeders' Cup. That is why he skipped the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity with Repent.

French Assault, who stumbled at the start in the Kentucky Cup, has trained at Belmont since Oct. 1 and has relished this main track. Kent Desormeaux will ride the colt for his brother, Keith.

Essence of Dubai, the Norfolk winner, is the stronger half of Godolphin's two-pronged entry that includes maiden Ibn Al Haitham.

Saarland, It'sallinthechase and Publication round out the field.