06/25/2003 11:00PM

African legend looms large

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Moving from the obscurity of Zimbabwe to the desert of Dubai only served to further the legend of Ipi Tombe.

Now comes a transition that could raise her profile to far greater heights. Ipi Tombe, who already is being called the greatest racehorse ever to hail from the African continent, will make her American debut Saturday at Churchill Downs as the heavy favorite in the $150,000 Locust Grove Handicap, a Grade 3 turf race designed as a stepping-stone to a divisional Eclipse Award.

Ipi Tombe, now trained by Elliott Walden, will be ridden by Pat Day in the 1 1/8-mile Locust Grove. A 5-year-old mare who has won 11 of 13 career starts, Ipi Tombe might have only three rivals Saturday, even though five were entered against her. Walden may elect to scratch his other entrant, Voodoo Lady, while longshot Honorable Cat probably will start only in the unlikely event that wet grounds force the race to the main track.

Those defections would leave Kiss the Devil, Quick Tip, and San Dare - the respective one-two-five finishers in the Mint Julep Handicap here five weeks ago - as a manageable first set of opponents in this country for Ipi Tombe.

"When you call on her, she'll rock you back in your seat," said Day, who has been aboard Ipi Tombe in several recent workouts over the Churchill turf course. "She's a little headstrong early, but then she comes back to you real nice. She obviously has a lot of ability."

That talent was on full display when she met males in her latest start, the $2 million Dubai Duty Free on March 29. Plagued by traffic for much of the race, Ipi Tombe suddenly shook loose in midstretch and went on to win by three convincing lengths. Although her past performances show that there was no on-site wagering on the Dubai Duty Free, she was even-money in the U.S. simulcast pools for which Arlington Park served as the wagering hub.

Ipi Tombe will carry high weight of 123 pounds in the Locust Grove and concede six pounds to both Quick Tip and San Dare and seven pounds to Kiss the Devil.

If Ipi Tombe is to be beaten Saturday, the most likely upsetter is Quick Tip, an unspectacular but highly reliable performer who has been first or second in 15 of 28 starts and earned nearly $620,000.

The Locust Grove is the ninth of 10 races on a Saturday card that also includes four allowance races. First post is 1:15 p.m. Eastern, with the Locust Grove set for 5:32.