04/05/2002 1:00AM

Officer can still prove a special breed


ARCADIA, Calif. - Officer may have finished his 2-year-old season on a three-race losing streak last year, but he had already established himself as one of the top California-bred juveniles in history.

On Sunday, when he makes his 3-year-old debut in the $100,000 Zany Tactics Stakes at Santa Anita, Officer has a chance to restore his reputation on a national level. His 3-year-old campaign will also help to determine his place in the history of statebreds.

A successful 3-year-old season would help Officer join an illustrious list of California-breds who were stars at 2 and again as 3-year-old and older horses. If he fails, he will join a group of Cal-breds who were outstanding at 2, but failed to train on.

The list of stars as 2-year-olds and older is led by Best Pal, the winner of five stakes at 2 who ended his career with 18 wins in 47 starts and earnings of $5,668,245. The group also includes Morvich, the 1922 Kentucky Derby winner who was unbeaten in 11 starts at 2, and more modern stars such as Bertrando, Flying Paster, Snow Chief, and T.V. Lark.

The list does not include such well-known names as Native Diver, a star in the 1960's, and Tiznow, the two-time winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic in 2000 and 2001, who excelled as 3-year-olds or older. They either did not start at 2 or did not have major success.

On the other hand, Officer may have been a flash in the pan 2-year-old whose best form is behind him. There were plenty of outstanding California-bred juveniles who fit that category. Purdue King won five of 10 starts and $489,730 in 1987 at 2, a season highlighted by four stakes wins. At 3, he was winless in five starts. In 1979, The Carpenter won three stakes and $263,490, but was winless in five starts at 3.

At one point last season, Officer was the leading contender to earn the Eclipse Award as the nation's champion 2-year-old male. He settled for California-bred champion 2-year-old male.

Bought by Ahmed Salman's Thoroughbred Corp. for $700,000 at the 2001 Barretts March 2-year-olds in-training sale, Officer won five of eight starts, including his first five races. He ended the campaign with three consecutive losses.

The highlights were convincing victories in the Grade 2 Del Mar Futurity over seven furlongs and the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes over 1 1/16 miles on Oct. 6, his last win. The losses came in prominent races. He finished fifth as the odds-on favorite in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Belmont Park on Oct. 27. A week later, he was second in the California Cup Juvenile at Oak Tree. In his final start of the year, Officer finished a quiet third in the Hollywood Futurity on Dec. 15.

Trained by Bob Baffert, Officer finished the year with earnings of $740,010, which placed him fourth on the all-time list of earnings by a California-bred 2-year-old, trailing Best Pal ($1,026,195), Snow Chief ($935,740), and Fali Time ($748,829), the winner of the 1983 Norfolk Stakes and Hollywood Futurity.

Snow Chief, who won four stakes at 2 and the 1986 Preakness Stakes, was trained by Mel Stute. Stute ranks Officer among the state's leading 2-year-olds, but said Best Pal was number one.

"He lasted the longest and was the most durable," Stute said. "I think Officer would be right at the top of the whole group."

Officer will be heavily favored to win Sunday's race, run over 6 1/2 furlongs for statebreds.

"I think we have to handle him well and not overdo it," said Richard Mulhall, the racing manager for Thoroughbred Corp, describing plans for 2002. "We'll go one race at a time."

If he runs well on Sunday, Officer may start in a nationally prominent race in coming weeks. "If it all works out, I'd love to see him run in the Preakness," Mulhall said. "We could do that or go to the Derby Trial."

The Derby Trial is at Churchill Downs on April 27, while the Preakness is on May 18. A win on Sunday and in either of those races would help push Officer toward the upper echelon of California-breds.