11/05/2001 1:00AM

Yougottawonder about Baffert


WASHINGTON - That must have been a silver-haired impostor in the paddock at Santa Anita Saturday afternoon. Surely it could not have been trainer Bob Baffert - who has risen to the top of his profession with his skilled, thoughtful management of Kentucky Derby prospects - handling a young horse so injudiciously.

Much of the racing world was astonished when Baffert entered his star 2-year-old, Officer, in a $125,000 stakes race only seven days after he had suffered his first defeat, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The second-guessing grew louder after Officer delivered a poor performance, finishing second in a race he should have dominated.

Officer has been one of the nation's most talked-about horses. He won his first five starts with such consummate ease that his talent seemed limitless. His credentials were further enhanced by his connections; Baffert is the nation's highest-profile trainer and his runners attract special attention. Although he does not usually indulge in hyperbole, Baffert told a national television audience before the Breeders' Cup: "Officer is a superstar."

But Officer did not look like a superstar in the first serious test of his career, partly because conditions were against him. A wind blowing down the backstretch at Belmont Park hindered front-runners and horses racing on or near the rail were at a disadvantage.

Officer was in a difficult spot breaking from post position No. 2, and his difficulties were compounded when jockey Victor Espinoza rushed him along the inside to duel with a very fast rival. As the European colt Johannesburg was rallying to win, Officer wilted.

"He's a better horse than that," Baffert said, frustrated. When he took Officer back home to California, he was surprised to see that the colt looked full of energy. Baffert told Richard Mulhall, manager of The Thoroughbred Corporation, which owns Officer: "If he was mine, I'd run him back in a week." And one week after the Breeders' Cup, there was an apparently easy race, the Budweiser and Foothill Beverage California Cup Juvenile, that is limited to California-bred horses.

After Officer was entered in this unlikely spot, Jeff Siegel, the West's ace handicapper, wrote in his analysis: "Officer should win at short odds, but if Baffert wants to treat him like a claiming horse, maybe that's all he is." This comment reflected the widespread disbelief surrounding Baffert's move. Claiming horses might come back to the races after a one-week rest, but good horses almost never do.

Baffert declared: "I don't care about criticism. I know my horses." He insisted that "Officer didn't go that fast" in the Breeders' Cup and that the race hadn't taken much of a toll on him.

This was a debatable premise. Officer had been running in a 12-horse field against the best juveniles in the world, battling a formidable speedster head-and-head, racing on a deep rail, and running into the teeth of a 20-mile-an-hour headwind. Moreover, he had traveled from California to New York and back. And this wasn't stressful? Even for a seasoned older horse, such circumstances would have been taxing.

Baffert wouldn't handle even a tough veteran this way. His robust 3-year-old Point Given never ran two races less than 14 days apart. Nor did his Kentucky Derby winner Silver Charm.

For the Cal Cup race, Baffert replaced the much-maligned Espinoza with Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, who took Officer back to the rear of the field. Then he launched a powerful, wide move on the turn to collar the leader, Yougottawanna, and looked as if he were going to win in a runaway. But the previously undistinguished Yougottawanna repulsed the challenge and drew away from the 2-5 favorite.

Baffert obviously made a mistake - only he didn't acknowledge it. The race had been a good education for Officer, he said. "Other than not winning, he got a good schooling out of it. . . . He had to make a long run, he learned how to relax . . . and you can't do better than that in a race," the trainer insisted. He declared that Officer was on track to run in the Hollywood Futurity next month.

Such rationalization and self-justification is very much out of character for Baffert, who is usually analytical and straightforward in the way he manages his horses. When Point Given lost the Kentucky Derby, the trainer publicly questioned his own preparation.

Yet even though Baffert's management of Officer has been bizarre, most racing fans can surely understand it. When we lose a bet that we should have won, we have an irresistible urge to recoup our losses at the nearest opportunity. It may not be smart, but it is human nature. Baffert was so eager to demonstrate that Officer's defeat was unwarranted that he wanted to vindicate his colt. But he should have sought this vindication next spring, not seven days after the Breeders' Cup.

(c) The Washington Post, 2001