10/02/2001 12:00AM

'Elegant' strong if feet are

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Elegant Ridge has the ability, but chronic hoof problems have kept her from showing her best, said Barry Irwin, whose Team Valor Stables owns the 6-year-old mare.

Irwin is hoping Elegant Ridge's foot ailments are a thing of the past when she runs at Belmont Park in Thursday's featured eighth race, a third-level allowance event for filly and mare grass runners.

The 1 1/16-mile Widener turf race drew 13 runners, including one

also-eligible and two main-track only entrants. The purse is $48,000.

Elegant Ridge, who is trained by Hall of Famer Neil Drysdale, figures to vie for favoritism with Velvet Morning, who is trained by another member of the Hall of Fame, Bobby Frankel.

Drysdale, who is enjoying a solid Belmont fall meet, has engaged the services of Jerry Bailey, the meet's leading rider. It's worth noting, Bailey jumps off Tima, who is trained by his regular customer, Bill Mott, to ride Elegant Ridge.

Elegant Ridge hasn't raced since finishing eighth in the Grade 3 Early Times Mint Julep at Churchill Downs on May 19.

It has been a long time between wins for Elegant Ridge, who hasn't visited the winner's circle since July 2000, when she captured an allowance race at Hollywood Park. She did, however, nearly win the Grade 2 Buena Vista Handicap at Santa Anita in February when she closed for second, beaten only a half-length.

"She has a ton of a ability, but she is an unbelievably frustrating horse," Irwin said. "She's the Imelda Marcos of horses. It's an effort for her to keep her shoes and when she loses them, she takes a piece of hoof off and then her feet need to regrow."

Irwin said Elegant Ridge "moves into another league" when the ground is soft. A significant amount of rain hit the area recently and it's likely the Belmont turf won't be firm.

Elegant Ridge drew post 9.

Velvet Morning finished second at this level in her last start on Aug. 30 at Saratoga. Edgar Prado, among the leader riders at this meet, has the return mount on Velvet Morning, who drew the outside post.

Freshened since finishing fifth in the New York Handicap on July 14, Windsong's two races in allowance company at Belmont Park earlier this year were good efforts and make her a serious threat in this spot.