01/23/2002 12:00AM

Fast filly returns in Dixie Belle

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Brown Eyed Beauty, who came within 0.50 of a second of equaling a Churchill Downs track record in her debut last year, returns from a near eight-month layoff Friday in the $50,000 Dixie Belle Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

The six-furlong race for 3-year-olds is the track's traditional opening day feature, and the race has drawn eight, including Born to Dance, who adds blinkers after sweeping four restricted stakes in Michigan last year by a combined 39 lengths; Bedanken, a 7 1/4-length winner of an overnight stakes in her last start at Remington Park; the Bernie Flint-trained Southern Dream; and maiden winner For Rubies.

Brown Eyed Beauty won her five-furlong debut by 5 1/2 lengths May 27, getting the distance in 57.78 seconds. City Street holds the track record at 57.28 seconds. She has not raced since because of a shin injury, but shows two local bullet works for her comeback, and is getting lots of praise from her trainer, Cecil Borel, who favorably compares the filly to his former stakes winners Golly Greely and Expensive Slew.

"As a young horse, she's showing as much as them or better," said Borel. "I've been waiting for one like her for a long time. She's fast and she's good, and I love her."

Borel said Brown Eyed Beauty benefited from the layoff, as she has filled out physically since last May. She also has family on her side, as she is a half-sister to Dancing With Ruth, a Grade 3 winner at 2. Borel has given the mount to his brother, defending riding champ Calvin Borel.

Track tries some changes

Oaklawn, which opened for its first meet in 1905, is one of the most traditional tracks in the country. But officials are shaking things up a little for the 54-day meet that opens Friday.

In major changes, the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap and $500,000 Apple Blossom will share a program April 6; horses will wear color-coded saddlecloths; races will be simulcast to both Europe and TVG; and 5 1/2-furlong sprints will have a new configuration, starting in the chute at the same location as a six-furlong race and ending at the alternate finish line - at the sixteenth pole - used for one-mile races.

Million Dollar Saturday, featuring the Oaklawn Handicap and Apple Blossom, is the highlight of the 25-race, $3.25 million stakes schedule at Oaklawn. Officials said the rich card will be a better platform for the Apple Blossom - which was held last year on a Sunday - because more people attend races on Saturdays than Sunday.

"In my opinion, last year, the Apple Blossom was the strongest race we ran here," said Oaklawn racing secretary Pat Pope. "I thought the best older fillies and mares in the country showed up. We're going to try something different, and see what it will do. Simulcast-wise, people taking our signal that day should really zero in on Oaklawn."

Oaklawn's simulcast signal will be more widely distributed this year. New York will be taking full card simulcasts from the track for the first time in a few years, while more races are expected to be simulcast to California. The track has also signed a non-exclusive agreement to have races shown on TVG.

Perhaps the most exciting new market is Europe. The track's races are scheduled to be exported to Europe and Turkey as part of an agreement with Greenwood Racing. "My understanding is that we will begin opening day," said Oaklawn general manager Eric Jackson. "It's like a European TVG."

The currency exchange rate will be automatically calculated on the wagers, making it possible to merge the bets into Oaklawn's pools.

St. Julien charts new territory

Jockey Marlon St. Julien has left his Fair Grounds base in New Orleans to test the waters at Oaklawn. It will be his first meet in Hot Springs.

"I was doing pretty good at Fair Grounds, but I've got a lot of confidence in myself and I just thought I should be doing better," said St. Julien. "There are several Kentucky trainers here that I ride and wins races for, and since I always wanted to try this area, now I'm here."

St. Julien has already picked up support from the Kentucky contingent as he has mounts for David Vance, Randy Morse, and Jesse "Sonny" Wigginton on Friday. Following the meet, St. Julien will return to Kentucky.

Caressing eyes Oaklawn Breeders' Cup

Vance said Caressing, the 2-year-old champion filly of 2000, is bedded down at Oaklawn and is pointing for the $200,000 Oaklawn Breeders' Cup Handicap on March 16. The race could serve as her steppingstone to the $500,000 Apple Blossom.

Caressing has not raced since she finished sixth, beaten less than five lengths, in the Grade 3 Falls City Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 22. She has won 5 of 13 starts, including the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.