04/03/2007 12:00AM

Ermine back where it began

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Ermine, who went from maiden winner to stakes winner within two starts last year at Oaklawn, further distinguished herself after the season ended, and on Saturday returns here as the probable second choice to Breeders' Cup Distaff champ Round Pond in the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap.

The 1 1/16-mile Apple Blossom is one of the nation's premier races for fillies and mares, and a field of eight was probable as of Tuesday. Others pointing for the race are Take D'oTour, India, Lemons Forever, Baghdaria, Rahys' Appeal, and River Savage.

Ermine left Oaklawn last year with a maiden win and a victory in the $75,000 Honeybee, and parlayed those credentials into a runner-up finish to Lemons Forever in the Kentucky Oaks. By year's end, she had won the Grade 2 Falls City Handicap at Churchill Downs, and in her two starts this year has finished second in two Grade 1 races at Santa Anita, the Santa Maria and the Santa Margarita.

"The biggest goal right now is to get a Grade 1," said Ronny Werner, who trains Ermine for Art and Stephanie Preston. "As a future broodmare, it's a big plus."

Ermine made a nice transition to the handicap division late last year, when she edged Joint Effort by a head in the thrilling Falls City on Nov.o23. Following a layoff, she returned to action on Feb. 10, and finished second by three-quarters of a length to Sugar Shake in the Santa Maria.

A month later, Ermine ran in the Santa Margarita and finished second by a half-length to Balance, the nation's top-ranked older female by Daily Racing Form national handicapper Mike Watchmaker. For her effort, Ermine, ranked third by Watchmaker, equaled her career-best Beyer Speed Figure, a 100.

"I thought it was a huge effort," said Werner. "She's put in some great races, but that was one of her best right there, I thought. Balance is a super-nice filly, and she just nabbed us, but maybe we'll do our share of nabbing next time."

The Beyer Figure that Ermine earned against Balance will be the highest last-race Beyer in the Apple Blossom.

In a pattern he has followed for this race, Werner sent Ermine to California about 12 days before the Santa Maria, having learned last year that she is best shipping early. He said he did not do that with her for the Grade 1 Acorn, when she finished fifth, or the Grade 3 Indiana Breeders' Cup, when she finished sixth.

"I figured the best she's run is when she walks out of her stall and she went and ran," Werner said. "Like she ran good here, and she's run good at Churchill. We didn't know if two weeks was going to be enough for her out there in the Santa Maria, but actually it was."

Ermine flew into Oaklawn from Santa Anita on March 15. She has since worked twice here, and was schooled in the paddock on Sunday.

"She's settled in good," Werner said. "Hopefully, she puts in another hard effort here. These good ones like this, they've got so much heart and fight, I mean you've got to respect them all.

"All of them at this level, it's not just about the speed that they have, it's about the desire they have to win, that's the fight that they have. These are hard to come by. You just appreciate them so much."

Eddie Castro has the mount on Ermine.

Dirt new frontier for Boboman

It probably will not be long before Boboman, winner of the Grade 1 Hollywood Turf Cup, becomes a dual-surface stakes winner. It could happen on Saturday, in fact, when he starts in the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap.

Boboman will be one of the top choices in the 1 1/8-mile race off his third-place finish last out in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap. Racing on dirt for the first time, he finished just 2 1/2 lengths behind winner Lava Man.

"It was the first time we tried [dirt], but it was the Santa Anita Handicap," said Richard Mandella, who trains Boboman. "It wasn't like some little thing. He ran pretty good in a big race, and I'm hoping he might improve a little bit from that experience."

For his effort, Boboman earned a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 106. He came under consideration for dirt racing for a couple of reasons, said Mandella.

"The bigger money is on the dirt," he said, "and the value in breeding is generally a little greater on the dirt, so we're looking to increase his value."

Boboman, who flew here Tuesday, will be ridden by Alex Solis. The highweight for the Oaklawn is Lawyer Ron, who will be ridden by Edgar Prado, according to trainer Todd Pletcher. Other probables for the race are Jonesboro, McCann's Mojave, Papi Chullo, and Smokeyjonessutton.