09/12/2002 11:00PM

West's juveniles lengths behind

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By the end of Del Mar we usually know who the best 2-year-olds are in Southern California. But this year that really isn't the case. Yes, Icecoldbeeratreds won the Futurity, but trainer Bob Baffert has said the colt's a sprinter. Bull Market missed the break, loomed, then faded. Kafwain won the Best Pal and ran well in the Futurity, while Chief Planner keeps finishing as though he will have a major say once the races get over a mile. None of these, however, has done enough to send you diving wallet-first into the B.C. Juvenile futures pool.

Many would tab Vindication as the West's top 2-year-old colt. The Bob Baffert-trained son of Seattle Slew easily graduated, then won clear again in an allowance sprint Aug. 22. But main foe and stablemate Bull Market scratched out of that race, and despite the win being visually impressive, he earned a mediocre figure of 84. This leaves him miles behind Easterners Sky Mesa and Zavata, Sky Mesa having earned a 103 when he won the Hopeful and Zavata having rattled off a couple of triple-digit Beyers in two stakes wins.

It's almost as confusing with the fillies. Buffythecenterfold had three straight stakes wins but never ran fast. Then in her biggest test, the Debutante, she struggled home, beaten double-digit lengths by winner Miss Houdini. Miss Houdini was dead game in her first start in about six weeks, but her Beyer of 88 doesn't get the pulse racing, and while runner-up Santa Catarina ran well, she also earned an 88. This puts them a couple lengths at least behind the East's Awesome Humor, who earned a 95 while winning the Spinaway.

It's too early to say the West Coasters can't win the Breeders' Cup juvenile races. Vindication was to run Saturday in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile, so he may well leap forward with the move to two turns. But he and his female counterparts will have to do better to be factors in Chicago.

Turf horses put on show

There's less confusion about the pecking order among the middle-distance turf runners coming out of the Del Mar meet. Beat Hollow and Sarafan put on a dazzling display in the Grade 1 Eddie Read, with Sarafan getting the jump on Beat Hollow and exploding to victory. Beat Hollow turned the tables in the Grade 1 Arlington Million a couple weeks ago. Both have their sights set on the B.C. Mile and loom major players.

Trouble is, a horse on the other side of the Atlantic who may well be the best European miler in 20 years, Rock of Gibraltar, also is targeting the B.C. Mile, in which he would be a heavy favorite. But as good as Rock of Gibraltar is, he must travel a long way and face completely unfamiliar surroundings.

The journey and a long, grueling campaign have undone other European kingpins, such as Dancing Brave and Galileo. Beat Hollow and Sarafan have proven they can ship to Chicago and reproduce their form.

Remarkable comeback

The Lazarus trick Pat Valenzuela managed to pull off may well be the story of the year, or at least the quietest big story of the year. He was given up for dead. His career had been given last rites. Even when reports came that he was trying to come back some scoffed. This was no longer a young man trying to return, but a man whose body had been through quite a bit.

Yet Valenzuela has managed to show why I believe he's the most talented person to ever sit on a racehorse. Simply put, horses run for P. Val. He may not have the brilliance of his younger days, but the spark is still there, and the ability.

Fresh off a smashing meet at Hollywood, where he won his first riding title in 10 years, he just kept going at Del Mar. As has been the case for the past 20 years, the only thing that can stop P. Val is P. Val.

Whither the new guard

And speaking of jockeys where is this next wave of top riders? Chris McCarron has retired. Eddie Delahoussaye is taking more time off; how far away can retirement be for him? Ditto the ageless wonder Laffit Pincay Jr. Gary Stevens has already retired once, and with his knees beaten up he can't have too many years left. Alex Solis and David Flores are not old, but they aren't pups either. Same with Kent Desormeaux, Mike Smith, and Corey Nakatani.

I keep waiting for Victor Espinoza to go through the roof, and it may well happen. But at some point in each of the last few decades the Southern California riding crop got an infusion of youth and ability. We're waiting . . .

A horse of respect

Finally, Came Home got the respect he deserved at the Del Mar meet. His Pacific Classic win over elders and 3-year-old rival War Emblem completely validated him as a top-class horse with the versatility to win from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles. And who else in the last 10 years or so, save Holy Bull and maybe a couple others, could say that?