02/26/2004 1:00AM

Bedanken returns for Bayou BC


NEW ORLEANS - During 18 Fair Grounds race cards in February, the turf course was deemed dry enough to use only seven times. The rain-offs might have hurt the racing product, but for the first time all meet, the grass here really looks green. Just in time for Bedanken's return to New Orleans.

comes in from Oaklawn Park for Saturday's $125,000 Bayou Breeders' Cup Handicap, carded at about 1 1/8 miles on turf. And for a change, there's a good chance the race stays on grass. Low clouds, mist, and a north wind Thursday were forecast to give way to warmer and drier weather by the weekend. The Bayou, upgraded to Grade 3 status this year, looks like a go on the grass.

Turf is the reason Bedanken is here. A 5-year-old mare - perhaps the top runner for the sire Geri - owned and bred by Pin Oak Stud, Bedanken has won four of six starts on dirt, but notched her most impressive victories on grass. The best one came on this course late in 2002, when Bedanken won the Pago Hop Handicap by seven lengths.

That was her final start for a year. A series of physical problems cost Bedanken her 4-year-old season, but when she returned to action here Dec. 26 in the Furl Sail Handicap, Bedanken looked like the same horse. Closing resolutely behind a fast pace, she won the Furl Sail by a length, a stirring performance after such a long layoff.

"You're concerned that with a big race like that, will they come back and run well again," said trainer Donnie Von Hemel. "We didn't mind the extra time between starts for her."

Von Hemel said he dodged inclement weather this month during Bedanken's training at Oaklawn, but he has managed to keep his filly on a regular work pattern for the Bayou Breeders' Cup. "This is the race we've been pointing for all along," he said.

Bedanken has 10 opponents Saturday, including the Eoin Harty-trained California shipper Firth of Lorne, who finished third behind the Grade 1-class Megahertz in her last start. She and Baie, based at Fair Grounds with trainer Mark Frostad, have the best chance to beat Bedanken.

Baie finished second Dec. 20 in the $75,000 Pago Hop, a one-mile turf stakes restricted to 3-year-olds, but she finished fast that day, and should run better at the Bayou BC's longer distance.

"She's been breezing super," said Frostad's assistant, Hugh Chatman. "You've got to hope there's a pace in front of her, though."

Flager and Due to Win Again, closely matched on turf, also rate as contenders.