04/04/2002 12:00AM

Apple Blossom: A field of dreams

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The pecking order of some of the nation's top fillies and mares will become more clear Saturday at Oaklawn Park in the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap. Five of the six horses entered in the 1 1/16-mile race are Grade 1 winners: Azeri, Miss Linda, Affluent, Fleet Renee, and Spain.

The blockbuster field is completed by Verruma, a Group 1 winner in Brazil who finished a sharp second last out on the Grade 1 Santa Maria Handicap.

The Apple Blossom will share a program with the Grade 1, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap for the first time in order to give the race, held last year on a Sunday, a bigger audience. The rich card is being billed as Million Dollar Saturday, and there will be a daily double linking the two Grade 1's. The Apple Blossom goes as the featured 11th race at 5:54 p.m. Central.

An attractive purse and an attractive spot on the calendar has made the Apple Blossom a showdown of some of the best fillies and mares in North America.

And it seems each brings a story into the race. Spain, a winner of $3,067,040, will surpass the record $3,283,388 earned by Serena's Song with a win in the Apple Blossom.

Affluent, co-highweighted at 118 pounds for the race along with Miss Linda, will attempt to give trainer Ron McAnally a record fourth win in the Apple Blossom. Her family ties to the race are strong because her second dam, Bayakoa, won it for McAnally in 1989.

Fleet Renee, winner of the Grade 1 Ashland last year at 3, will be making her first start against older females and her first since September, for comeback specialist, trainer Michael Dickinson. Miss Linda, who runs big fresh, will be making her first start since her explosive win in the Grade 3 Sabin Handicap on Feb. 8. Verruma is looking for her first Grade 1 win, and then there is Azeri.

How good is she? In five short months, Azeri has gone from a maiden winner over six furlongs to a Grade 1 winner over nine furlongs. Her development has been swift, and her assets are many. She has speed, she can rate, and she is nimble with a "puma-like" stride, said her trainer, Laura de Seroux.

Azeri, who in her last start won the Grade 1 Santa Margarita by three lengths over Spain, should be stalking the fast Miss Linda in the Apple Blossom. Jockey Mike Smith has the mount on Azeri for owner Allen Paulson Living Trust, while Richard Migliore has the mount on Miss Linda for owner Ackerley Brothers Farm and trainer John Kimmel.

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