10/17/2001 11:00PM

Officer leads Baffert's Cup forces


ELMONT, N.Y. - The most impressive 2-year-old winner you've ever seen?

A majority of horsemen would agree that Arazi, in winning the Breeders Cup Juvenile of 1991 by five lengths, was the standout of standouts. He went past the others as if they were tied to a post in a stunning display of talent and youthful exuberance. The runner-up in the Juvenile that memorable afternoon was Bertrando, a gifted young horse struggling to compete on sore shins.

Bertrando is the sire of the most celebrated 2-year-old since Arazi: Officer. Next weekend, when Officer, owned by The Thoroughbred Corp., goes in the $1 million Juvenile, it is expected he will be the shortest-priced favorite on the Breeders' Cup program. He is undefeated after five starts - four of them stakes - has earned a rich reputation for poise and ability, and has earned the complete confidence of his trainer, Bob Baffert, who has had some brilliant horses in his care over the past decade.

One of them, Point Given, a top candidate for Horse of the Year honors after victories in the Preakness and Belmont Stakes, was second by a nose to Macho Uno in last year's Juvenile.

"I didn't think he could lose," Baffert recalled the other day. "Post position was a factor. He was stuck in the 1 hole. Gary Stevens, riding him for the first time, had to make a quick decision: Either get him away rapidly, using him early, or take hold of him and bring him on from behind. As it turned out, he was shuffled back to last. By that time, the race was half-over, and feeling he had no chance to be one-two-three, he decided to school him a little behind horses. Point Given charged and just missed by a nose. He should have destroyed that field."

Baffert declines to compare Point Given and Officer.

"Point Given was a great big horse who did things big horses weren't supposed to do," the trainer said. "Officer is average in size, a top athlete, very precocious, and easy to train. He does everything easily. He's gifted, a superstar."

Officer encouraged such praise from the outset, winning his first three starts by a combined margin of 21 lengths. He impressed easterners last month when he flew here to Belmont Park and made light work of the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes. Was that his best performance?

"I think he ran better in the Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar," Baffert said."Victor Espinoza let him run a little around the turn and Officer went his first six furlongs in 1:08.80 and his 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:15.

"His friends keep asking Espinoza when he's going to let Officer run, and he tells them that Baffert doesn't want him to turn the colt loose. Well, he's got my permission to let him run in the Juvenile."

Baffert considers another undefeated colt, Came Home, winner of the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Saratoga, to be the principal opponent for Officer in the Juvenile. He notes that Came Home has good speed and is in good hands. But he also points out that Officer has speed, too, and should not be far off the pace next weekend.

"He's ready," Baffert says."I love his chances. In fact I love all three of the horses we're running in the Breeders Cup.

"Habibti is a lovely filly and she will be hard to beat in the Juvenile Fillies. I wish she could have run in that race they called off [Matron] but she's trained good. I also love El Corredor in the Sprint. He's fresh and quick and he's got class. We could have a nice day."