06/12/2007 12:00AM

Ermine climbing to head of her class

Sunny Taylor / Coady Photography
Ermine will try to build upon her win in the Apple Blossom (above) in Saturday's Fleur de Lis.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Trainer Ronny Werner wanted to stay in Kentucky, but his biggest client at the time, Tom Durant, wanted his horses to run mainly in their home state of Texas. Werner bit the proverbial bullet, staying put.

"I went from 50 horses to 15," he recalled this week in his Churchill Downs office.

That was in early June 2003, and now, four years later, Werner is satisfied with the decision he made for himself and his family. What helps substantially is that his current stable includes an exceptional 4-year-old filly named Ermine, who will face a critical juncture in her career when she runs Saturday at Churchill Downs in the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap, the secondary feature on a six-stakes program anchored by the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap.

Ermine will face two of the other top fillies and mares in North America in Asi Siempre and Indian Vale, lending an inordinate amount of importance to the 33rd running of the $300,000 Fleur de Lis. Ermine is ranked No. 2 among older females on the latest Watchmaker Watch, and by winning the Fleur de Lis she could conceivably take the top spot from Balance, who lost her last race. About seven fillies and mares were expected for the Fleur de Lis when entries for all the Foster Day races were taken Wednesday.

"The way it's shaping up, this race is like a Grade 1," said Werner, 47. "Whoever wins this race, they're going to earn it. This is probably the toughest race my filly's ever run in."

Ermine, owned by Art and Stephanie Preston's Oxbow Racing, won a Grade 1 race in her last start when she drove to a 1 1/4-length score in the April 7 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park under jockey Eddie Castro, who will retain the mount Saturday. The Apple Blossom extended a terrific run that started somewhat inconspicuously when Ermine won a second-level allowance race at Churchill last Nov. 1.

In her four races since then, Ermine won the Grade 2 Falls City at Churchill, finished second in back-to-back Grade 1's over the winter at Santa Anita, then won the Apple Blossom, moving her career record to 5 wins and 5 seconds from 13 overall starts, with earnings of more than $850,000. Werner immediately pinpointed the 1 1/8-mile Fleur de Lis as his next goal.

"She'd run 30 days apart from the Santa Maria to the Santa Margarita to the Apple Blossom," said Werner. "She'd run really hard in all of them, and I wanted to give her some time. The timing between the Apple Blossom and the Fleur de Lis really suited what we needed to do with her."

Although Ermine, a Florida-bred by Exchange Rate, won the Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn and was second behind Lemons Forever in the Kentucky Oaks, two subsequent races in the middle of her 3-year-old season were very disappointing, as she was a nonthreatening fifth in the Acorn and an even worse sixth in the Indiana Oaks before getting back on track in the November allowance race. In hindsight, Werner said his educated guess is that shipping the filly too close to her races may have led to her midseason slump, and since then, he has been careful to ship early.

"We went to California two weeks early and let her get settled in," he said. "Maybe hauling her around is what made her run bad in those races - I don't know, but it's the best I can come up with, and I've thought a lot about it."

With the Fleur de Lis being in her back yard, and with an impressive string of recorded workouts since the Apple Blossom, Ermine has an opportunity to assume leadership of the national filly and mare division. For Werner, who is back to having a 50-horse stable split between Churchill and Arlington Park, a victory in the Fleur de Lis would put his latest star in prime position to take the next big step: contend for a divisional championship when the Breeders' Cup Distaff is run Oct. 27 at Monmouth Park in New Jersey.

"After this, we'll run in one of the two Grade 1's at Saratoga," the Julyo28 Go for Wand or the Aug. 24 Personal Ensign, "but not both," he said. "Then we'll have one more race before the Breeders' Cup."

Ermine will carry 119 pounds in the Fleur de Lis, three fewer than topweight Asi Siempre, the Patrick Biancone-trained mare who finished second before being disqualified to fourth last fall in the BC Distaff at Churchill. Like Ermine, Asi Siempre is being pointed to the BC Distaff at Monmouth.

"She is coming up to the race very well," Biancone said Tuesday from Keeneland. "This will be her last race on dirt until the Breeders' Cup. After this she runs on the turf at Del Mar, then in the Spinster" on the Keeneland Polytrack.

Garrett Gomez will be in from New York to ride Asi Siempre, while John Velazquez will make the same trip to ride Indian Vale (119 pounds) for Todd Pletcher. The other prospective starters are Rolling Sea, 118; Kettleoneup, 117; Baghdaria, 116; and Leah's Secret, 116.

The Fleur de Lis and the $750,000 Stephen Foster, which will have the Pletcher duo of Master Command and Magna Graduate as favorites, are the main events on a program offering $1.8 million in stakes purses. The other races, all Grade 3 events, are the $200,000 Northern Dancer BC, $200,000 Jefferson Cup, $200,000 Regret, and $150,000 Mint Julep Handicap.

No major cable network is carrying the races, although HRTV will broadcast them all live.