04/17/2002 11:00PM

Mysterious Officer, what art thou?


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Bob Baffert has had a remarkable collection of 3-year-olds in his care over recent seasons including his two Kentucky Derby winners, Silver Charm and Real Quiet, as well as Cavonnier, General Challenge, Captain Steve, Point Given, Indian Charlie, and Congaree. Most of the time he got the most out of most of these colts, but another, Officer, remains a mystery.

Last fall, when he was winning the Del Mar Futurity and Belmont Park's Champagne Stakes, Officer was hailed as the best young horse in America, one of the best in quite a while, and a top prospect for the classics of 2002. But then his express train career was thrown off course. An odds-on favorite against the world's best in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he tired to finish fifth. His performance was slightly better in the California Cup Juvenile, but he turned in a bland effort in the Hollywood Futurity. Baffert backed away from him.

With time, Officer regained lost enthusiasm and started to train purposefully again. Two weeks ago he made his 3-year-old debut in the Zany Tactics Stakes, going 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita. He outclassed the small field and won by six lengths. Now that he seems right again, it is time for a test.

Officer starts Saturday in the $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes, and he will be on a mission. This is an opportunity to prove he can stay a distance of ground, going 1 1/16 miles in a competitive field of nine.

"If he shows us that he can stay," Baffert said, "then we'll go on with him. If he can't stay, we won't ask again. We'll just point him for shorter races. There is a lot we don't know about this colt, including why he went off form last fall. It may be that those two trips to New York were too much for him. He handled the 1 1/16 miles nicely in the Champagne but couldn't do it over the same track and at the same distance in the Breeders' Cup."

Baffert will rely on the recently purchased War Emblem, a galloping winner of the Illinois Derby, in his bid for a third Kentucky Derby. He said that Officer will be considered for the Preakness if he does well in the Lexington, and he will send Danthebluegrassman to Texas for the Lone Star Derby.

Churchill and quarantine

A permanent quarantine facility at Churchill Downs? There has been no need until recently because most of the horses never leave the country. But now there seems to be competition between the Coolmore associates of Ireland and Sheikh Mohammed of Dubai to win a Kentucky Derby, and undoubtedly there will be increasing traffic from overseas every spring.

There is no problem when Churchill Downs hosts the Breeders' Cup World Championships because the track provides temporary quarantine facilities. Arranging for similar facilities for the spring, however,would force the relocation of a large number of horses who run regularly on the Kentucky circuit. "It's a matter of space," said Alex Waldrop, president of Churchill Downs. "There has been a proposal to build a quarantine station at Trackside, the OTB facility off the Watterson Expressway, not far from the track. That station could serve both the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders' Cup. However, the Breeders' Cup people want the quarantine station to be located at the host track."

When Arazi came from France for the 1992 Kentucky Derby, he was quarantined in a converted warehouse, just across the street from the Kentucky Derby Museum. The building was razed, however, to accommodate the widening of Central Avenue.

The horses coming from overseas for the 128th Kentucky Derby will be quarantined at Keeneland, which has a permanent facility. They will then be transferred to Churchill Downs, 75 miles away.