07/24/2002 11:00PM

Diana earlier, deeper


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - In an effort to improve the status of the Diana Handicap, the New York Racing Association moved the race from the last weekend of the Saratoga meet to the first.

On paper, it looks as though the date switch helped. The 10 horses entered in the $500,000 Diana have combined to win 22 stakes, including this year's New York, Locust Grove, Just a Game, Buena Vista, and Suwanee River handicaps.

"This is an amazingly talented field," said Christophe Clement, trainer of likely Diana favorite Voodoo Dancer, the 120-pound highweight who drew the outside post.

The Diana, which remains a Grade 2 despite producing female turf champions Memories of Silver and Perfect Sting, shares billing Saturday with the Grade 1 Test. Both races will be televised on ESPN (5-6 p.m. Eastern), with the Diana being shown on tape delay. The Diana also begins the pick four, which will have a guaranteed $500,000 pool.

A daughter of Kingmambo, Voodoo Dancer is 8 for 13 with six stakes wins, including the Grade 1 Garden City last year. She is coming off a victory in the Locust Grove at Churchill, a race in which she unleashed a powerful closing kick to beat Blue Moon by 1 1/4 lengths.

"She's got a great turn of foot," Clement said. "Great turf horses have a turn of foot and that's what makes them so good."

Blue Moon, Solvig, and Snow Dance - the second-, third- and fifth-place finishers from the Locust Grove - are all back to try Voodoo Dancer again.

Of the three, Snow Dance may be the biggest threat. A daughter of Forest Wildcat, Snow Dance went 2 for 2 over Saratoga's turf course last summer, including a win in the Grade 2 Lake Placid Handicap. She enters the race a bit off form, but trainer John Ward said Snow Dance came out of the Gamely with a bruised foot and acted up in the paddock before the Locust Grove.

"I would say her deportment in the paddock is going to be a key sign to how she'll run," Ward said. "Voodoo Dancer is really on top of her game. She was really, really good at Churchill. The best day to have a throw out race is when one runs over the top."

Babae is in career form having won the Grade 3 Just a Game on Belmont Day and the Dr. James Penny Handicap at Philadelphia Park on June 29. She was second in the Diana and the Ballston Spa Breeders' Cup over this surface last year.

Bobby Frankel, who won the Diana with Starine last year, sends out the uncoupled entry of Tates Creek and Beefeater Baby. Tates Creek was beaten a neck in the Just a Game when Frankel thought Kent Desormeaux had the filly too far out of it. She came back to win an allowance race under Jerry Bailey, who is aboard again Saturday.

Beefeater Baby was a bit rank when competing in stakes in California last summer, according to Frankel. Since learning to relax, she has run three solid races this year, winning her last two. John Velazquez, who rode Starine last year, has the call.

Owsley finally broke through for her first stakes win by taking the New York Handicap. She has run well over this turf course in the past.