10/07/2001 11:00PM

Forest Secrets heads tough Raven Run


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Maybe it's the time, the place, the distance, or the money. For whatever reason, the Raven Run Stakes, a $100,000 race at seven furlongs, has come up a particularly tough spot again Wednesday at Keeneland, just as it did last year.

Trainer John T. Ward Jr. and owner Debby Oxley, who upset the Raven Run with Darling My Darling last fall, are back with the probable favorite in Forest Secrets, winner of the Grade 1 Acorn in May. Six other 3-year-old fillies, including stakes-proven sprinters such as Nasty Storm and Southern Tour, give the Raven Run the same look of quality as when Surfside and Roxelana ran in the 2000 renewal.

Forest Secrets most recently tired to finish sixth in the Grade 1 Test at Saratoga, after which "we gave her a little rest," said Ward. Since then, "she's grown up, filled out, and trained beautifully over this race course."

With 3-year-olds Forest Secrets and Snow Dance - the turf specialist who will be one of the favorites in the Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup here Saturday - Ward and his main clients, John and Debby Oxley, clearly are hoping to fill a void in their stable. Ward announced Sunday that their former Eclipse champion, Beautiful Pleasure, has been retired after running poorly in the Beldame last weekend, while also indicating that Darling My Darling, who has been lightly raced since the Raven Run last fall, may be headed the same way.

"She's in light training," said Ward. "Her status is indefinite. We may have a decision on her soon."

With a top effort, Forest Secrets clearly is capable of making her connections forget about their former stable stars for at least a few minutes Wednesday. Her career debut here in April was terrific, as was a subsequent narrow defeat in a Churchill allowance and her Acorn win at 50-1. Her two ensuing races were the Mother Goose, in which she was fourth, and the Test.

Nasty Storm should be her main competition. The Dallas Stewart-trained filly already owns two stakes wins this year, and jockey Pat Day and this seven-furlong distance seem to fit particularly well.

Southern Tour, making her second start for trainer Hal Wiggins, has never been worse than third in five career starts. "This is a real tough race," said Wiggins. "But our filly is doing great, and this is the right spot to run her in."

The rest of the Raven Run field consists of Darling Deputy, Hattiesburg, Naughty Mambo, and Curve Ahead.