10/03/2002 12:00AM

Cecil suddenly looks golden


ARCADIA, Calif. - Apparently, neither Andre Fabre nor Christophe Clement got the word. Snake McDaniel says they won't beat Golden Apples on Saturday in the $500,000 Yellow Ribbon Stakes, even if they send out monsters Banks Hill and Voodoo Dancer.

Such a display of confidence from a man like McDaniel drives the boss, Ben Cecil, to another stress-induced cigarette. Eugene Edward McDaniel - he's been called Snake forever - came west with Charlie Whittingham in the 1950's and has handled more good horses than he can remember. If McDaniel thinks Golden Apples is a good one, she must be, since his frame of reference goes back to such Whittingham mares as Tallahto, Palisima, Le Cle, and La Zanzara.

"Look at Ben," Snake said as the trainer stood nearby. "He's washing out already."

Cecil did not deny it. Golden Apples was all to blame. After winning the Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington Park on Aug. 17, defeating Astra and England's Legend in the process, the filly has arrived at her date in the Yellow Ribbon positively radiant with good condition.

"The better she is, the more nervous I get," Cecil said. "And she has never been this good since I've had her."

Golden Apples has been the silver lining in an otherwise frustrating year for the 33-year-old Cecil. He has won just 10 races in 2002, from fewer than 60 starters, and he is perilously close to having more initials than horses. Right now, there are 13 in his Santa Anita stable.

"There's no denying it's a numbers game in California these days," Cecil said. "Before Golden Apples won the Beverly D., the barn was losing money for the year. But you can't cut corners. If you do, you won't even have those 13 horses for long."

Benjamin David Amherst Cecil is the nephew of the legendary English trainer Henry Cecil, whose long list of accomplishments includes no fewer than three Epsom Derbies. If Ben needs further inspiration, he can go home each night and admire the two Breeders' Cup Sprint trophies won by his wife, Jenine Sahadi, with Lit de Justice and Elmhurst.

There is plenty to admire in Cecil's record, as well. His runners have won the the Matriarch, the Early Times Dixie, the Santa Barbara, the Princess, the Gamely, the Beverly Hills, and the American Handicap twice. He has also come close in the Yellow Ribbon, finishing second with Fanjica in 1997 and third with Polaire in 2000.

Cecil learned his trade from Ian Balding and Mark Tompkins in England, Colin Hayes in Australia, and Gary Jones in California. He was working as assistant to former Whittingham disciple Rodney Rash in March of 1996 when Rash, just 36, died of a rare blood disease. A shell-shocked Cecil stepped up to provide the 32-horse stable with a measure of stability.

Since then, most of Cecil's best runners have been owned by Gary Tanaka, including Squeak, Donna Viola, and Dernier Empereur. Tanaka, a London-based investor, bought Golden Apples during the summer of 2001 and sent her to Cecil with the hope of winning the Del Mar Oaks. She did.

In seven starts since then she has never failed to fire, with three wins, three seconds, and a third in last November's Matriarch over a slippery, yielding course. The only thing that stopped Golden Apples was a cyst, discovered in her throat last spring after finishing second to Astra in the Santa Barbara. She did not run again for three months, and then she nearly won the Ramona Handicap at Del Mar.

"The vet said it was the biggest cyst he'd ever seen," Cecil said, still amazed she was holding her form. "We think it might have been a piece of straw that got caught in her throat and became infected."

Though her throat is healed, Golden Apples still gets her hay soaked in water and her grain cooked to a nice, warm mash. Late Thursday morning, as Cecil's crew was setting tubs up and down the shed row, Golden Apples was banging at her stall grate, driven crazy by the smells. Her breakfast was still on the boil.

"When I brought her over for the Ramona, I was embarrassed," Cecil recalled. "She was too skinny, she'd grown a coat, and she nearly won anyway. The Beverly D. was just three weeks later, so there really wasn't much I could do with her in between. But since she returned from Chicago, she has never eaten better. Just look at her now."

Cloaked in a gleaming light brown, with a long forelock and a busy mouth, Golden Apples will need to run to her looks if she is going to beat Banks Hill in the Yellow Ribbon. But if that happens, chances are Cecil will be saddling the favorite for the $1 million Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf on Oct. 26 at Arlington Park. He didn't bother to hide a smile.

"Now that's the kind of stress I would look forward to," Cecil said.