09/04/2001 11:00PM

Look beyond Came Home for a star

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COLUMBIA, Md. - I'm far from being an expert on West Coast racing. But you certainly don't have to be a California specialist to see that this year's West Coast 2-year-olds are killers.

This was demonstrated last Saturday at Saratoga when Came Home, a colt of the highest quality, fled eastward just to avoid running against Officer, the leading colt in California. Came Home won the Hopeful Stakes with an awesome Beyer Figure of 108 - by far the fastest running in the last 10 years. The closest recent winners were Hennessy, who ran a 100 Beyer in 1995, Great Navigator with a 98 in 1992, and Dehere with a 97 in 1993. The average Beyer Speed Figure for Hopeful winners since 1992 was 94, 14 points behind Came Home.

Obviously, the dreaded Officer must be something very special.

The very next race after Saturday's Hopeful provided the perfect barometer to measure the quality of Came Home's win. It was the Forego, a Grade 1 sprint for Breeders' Cup aspirants such as Delaware Township, Left Bank, Bonapaw, Hook and Ladder, and Alannan.

Delaware Township won with a Beyer of only 109 at 6 1/2 furlongs - just one point higher than the Hopeful at seven furlongs. Coming on the heels of the 107 run by the 2-year-old fillies You and Cashier's Dream in the Adirondack, Came Home's Hopeful rounded out one of the more extraordinary Saratoga juvenile seasons.

For Came Home, the figure of 108 was not such a stretch. In fact, more than six weeks before the Hopeful, Came Home had won the Hollywood Juvenile Championship with a 105 Beyer. Officer, the horse he was avoiding, had run a 106 to win the Best Pal at Del Mar on Aug. 15.

At Saratoga on Aug. 24 we had a practical, if somewhat lower level, demonstration of the quality of the California 2-year-olds. Imperial Gesture, beaten by 10 1/2 lengths in a Del Mar maiden race, shipped to Saratoga and crushed a maiden field, improving her Beyer from 65 to 86. The very next day another shipper from Godolphin Racing, Burnt Ember, edged away in the final strides to beat a well-meant Steve Asmussen-trained first-time starter, improving his figures from 67 to 81. It was clearly a hot handicapping angle, and you had to get on to it early.

This angle even tempted me to venture into the foreign (for me) territory of Del Mar racing. I noticed that the horses who finished behind the young filly Habibti in a July 29 maiden race had all been running well. Wild and Icy and Imperial Gesture had already come back to win. Que Bonita didn't win, but her Beyers improved from 66 to 74. Then, on Aug. 25, three who ran in Habibti's wake were coming back in the same maiden race. I stayed late to play them, but it turned out much too chalky, the trifecta paying only $36.

Still, they did finish one-two-three, Ayanna winning at 2-5 as the top figure, and the next two best Beyers from the Habibti race running second and third. Habibti came back herself to win impressively in the Del Mar Debutante Stakes, paying $6.60 in defeating one of the leading young fillies, Tempera.

But the 2-year-old picture is not all California. The most impressive runner in the Hopeful was not Came Home. It was the second-place finisher, Mayakovsky. In only the second start of his career, Mayakovsky chased the pace three wide and continued on very gamely to lose by only two lengths, and cleared the rest of the field by 6 3/4 lengths. He earned a Beyer Figure of 104, which would easily have won every other running of the Hopeful in the past 10 years.

The key to Mayakovsky's bright future is his trainer, Patrick Biancone. He has a clear, intelligent plan for Mayakovsky. He is bringing this baby along very slowly, not asking too much of him too soon - which might sound strange for a trainer who jumped his horse up into a major stakes in only his second start. But Biancone's measured comments show that he very early recognized how good his horse is, and mapped out a long-term strategy.

He understood that he would be vulnerable to a more experienced horse in the Hopeful, but he refused to squeeze his horse too hard, too early just to win at Saratoga. He will not run Mayakovsky again until a stretch-out to 1 1/16 miles in the Champagne in early October, all in the hope of peaking for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on Oct. 27.

Mayakovsky finished determinedly in the Hopeful with a final eighth of 12.40 seconds, and he looks like he should have no trouble handling a longer distance.

At this point, Mayakovsky is the Great East Coast Hope. And I like his chances.