12/27/2001 1:00AM

Locals alive in Grand Slam II


MIAMI - Trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. feels lucky when Best of the Rest is healthy enough to make it to a race. His colleague, Marty Wolfson, feels lucky merely to have Mr. Pleasentfar in his barn.

On Saturday, Plesa and Wolfson hope their luck lasts, because among all the local horses, Best of the Rest and Mr. Pleasentfar appear to have the best chance of winning a race on Calder's second annual Grand Slam II program.

Plesa has Best of the Rest in the $100,000, Grade 3 Fred W. Hooper Handicap, and Wolfson sends out Mr. Pleasentfar in the $150,000, Grade 2 W.L. McKnight Handicap.

Owned by Bea Oxenberg, Best of the Rest ought to carry the colors of a MASH unit. During his injury-plagued career, Best of the Rest has endured three knee operations, a fracture on the back of the bone in his knee, and a fractured tibia. Yet with each successive comeback he has managed to maintain position atop of the local handicap division, and for the second time in his career he appears poised to take a place among the national leaders - if he can stay healthy long enough to get that chance.

"There's no telling how good this horse could have been if he had been sound," said Plesa, who admits that just about the first thing he does every morning when he arrives at the barn is check Best of the Rest's knees to make sure they're cool.

The Hooper marks only the 17th time Plesa has been able to run Best of the Rest in the five years that the horse has been at the track. He enters the race off a pair of one-sided victories in the Spend a Buck and the King Rex handicaps, in which he earned Beyer Speed Figures of 106 and 108, respectively. Another strong effort Saturday would earn Best of the Rest a berth in Gulfstream Park's Donn Handicap on Feb. 9.

"We were in this same position two years ago," Plesa said. "He came to the Hooper off two big victories and was using the race as a prep for the Donn. But then he chipped his knee finishing third that day, and was sidelined for the next eight months."

Plesa's goal for the past several years has been to get Best of the Rest the national recognition the horse deserves - not only for his racing reputation but also for his future career at stud. And while a victory in the Hooper would be a feather in his cap, a victory in a Grade 1 like the Donn is the ultimate goal.

"I don't know any athlete, equine or human, who has overcome what he's overcome and still performs at such a high level," said Plesa. "Everybody around here knows what he's been through and accomplished. Now I want to see him get the same kind of respect and recognition from the rest of the racing world."

Right time, right place

Mr. Pleasentfar gained respect and enhanced his future reputation in the breeding shed when he shipped to New York and won the Grade 2 Red Smith Handicap in an upset on Nov. 17. The win was the third in the last four starts for the Brazilian-bred Mr. Pleasentfar, who came to Wolfson last spring under unusual circumstances shortly after his appearance in the United Arab Emirates Derby in Dubai.

"I consider myself fortunate just to be training this colt," said Wolfson. "The owner, Raja Malek, is a trainer himself, and shipped Mr. Pleasentfar into Hialeah after returning from Dubai. When Hialeah's barn area closed he could not get a stall for his horse at Calder. It was about that time I had taken another Brazilian horse, Pavillon, to New Jersey to win the Red Bank, and it got me a little notoriety. Mr. Malek came to me and asked if I'd take his colt, and after watching tapes of his races, both on turf and dirt, I was extremely interested."

Wolfson said it took Mr. Pleasentfar time to acclimate to the American style of training, and he credits exercise riders Anthony Schweiker and Nicole Wiley with getting the horse on the right track.

"He would gallop with his head cocked to the outside and never changed leads," said Wolfson. "I noticed that in the tapes of his races as well. It took us a month or so to get him to settle in, but fortunately he is a very intelligent individual, one of the most intelligent horses I've ever been around, and he learned his lessons well. He won going a mile and one-sixteenth the second time I ran him but I knew he needed to go further. He doesn't even start rolling until after they've gone a mile."

Wolfson stretched Mr. Pleasentfar out to a 1 3/8 miles his next two starts, Calder's Flying Pidgeon and the Red Smith - and was rewarded with a pair of come-from-behind victories. He earned a career best Beyer of 100 for his performance in the Red Smith, the fourth time in as many starts his figures have improved since he made his U.S. debut in July.

"I'm proud of his win in the Red Smith," said Wolfson. "He's still a young horse and there is no telling how much better he can get."

One thing is certain: If either or both Best of the Rest and Mr. Pleasentfar win on Saturday, luck will have nothing to do with it.