08/12/2001 11:00PM

These guys are tough, Officer

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DEL MAR, Calif. - After a pair of laughably easy victories against California-breds, Officer steps out against open company and meets a strong field of 2-year-olds in Wednesday's Grade 3 $150,000 Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar. His rivals include recent maiden winners Essence of Dubai and Werblin, along with Metatron, who was second to the West's pro-tem leader, Came Home, in the Hollywood Juvenile Championship.

Came Home is awaiting the closing-day Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 5, and still only five horses could be found to enter the 6 1/2-furlong Best Pal, and only four may run. Ecstatic, a recent maiden winner who, like Officer, is trained by Bob Baffert and owned by Prince Ahmed Salman's The Thoroughbred Corporation, also is entered, but Baffert said on Monday he was not sure if Ecstatic would run.

"He was entered as insurance, in case something happened to the other horse," Baffert said.

Regardless, there will be four betting interests in the Best Pal. Underscoring that this race offers more in quality than quantity, consider that the five entrants combined have lost just once.

Officer has been the most impressive juvenile seen here this summer, his brilliant speed sparking memories of Flame Thrower, who won the Best Pal and Del Mar Futurity last summer for Baffert. After winning a maiden race at Hollywood Park on July 6 by six lengths, Officer came back here on July 25 and breezed to an effortless eight-length victory in the Graduation Stakes.

Those races, however, were restricted to California-breds. "He's going to look over and say, 'Where's Crown the King? Where are my guys?' " Baffert said, referring to the horse who twice ran second to Officer.

The biggest threat to Officer may be Metatron, who was a strong second despite encountering trouble in the Hollywood Juvenile. He lost by four lengths but was 7 1/2 lengths clear of the third horse after running up on another horse's heels on the far turn. David Flores is Metatron's new rider.

Essence of Dubai was a winner at odds-on in his lone start at Hollywood Park on July 8. His trainer, Eoin Harty, is realistic about his chances.

"If I run second, I'll be very happy," Harty said. "I think Officer is better right now, but down the line, with more distance, I think we'll have a better chance. This is a good chance to see how good my horse is."

Werblin, who breaks from the rail, was a two-length winner of his lone start on July 1 at Hollywood Park for trainer Eduardo Inda.

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