08/06/2002 11:00PM

Gardenia final start of Caressing's career

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Trainer Dave Vance concedes that Caressing has been something of a disappointment since she posted her 45-1 upset in the 2000 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.

"But it'll be an even bigger disappointment when she goes home," Vance said.

Saturday, Caressing will make the final start of her career before being retired to owner Carl Pollard's Hermitage Farm outside of Louisville. Caressing is one of about eight fillies and mares expected at Ellis Park for the $200,000 Gardenia Handicap, the signature event of the annual summer meet at the Henderson, Ky., track.

Although Caressing has five wins from 17 career starts, only one made the racing world sit up and take notice: her stunning victory in the Breeders' Cup.

Vance said the filly's 3-year-old season, in which she won two minor stakes, was not what he and Pollard had hoped for, and the trainer is even willing to indulge in a little second-guessing.

"She ran such a big race the one time, you'd think she would have gotten more done since then," said Vance. "But there were some things that happened that we couldn't help. She got sick and we had to freshen her, and maybe we had her in the wrong spots at the wrong time. We maybe should've even stopped on her last summer because she just wasn't herself.

"But she's been an awfully good mare for us. Hopefully we'll be able to send her out a winner Saturday. It'd be a great way to have her go out."

Victory in the 1 1/8-mile Gardenia would put Caressing, who has bankrolled nearly $944,000, past the $1 million earnings mark. Achieving that milestone seems plausible, because in her last start, the July 6 Iowa Distaff at Prairie Meadows, Caressing ran one of her best races in some time, losing by a nose to Minister's Baby.

"She's going about her chores the right way again," said Vance.

The Iowa race was the second for Caressing since she was pronounced in foal to Fusaichi Pegasus. A 4-year-old daughter of Honour and Glory, she had been stabled at Arlington Park for about a month but was vanned back to Churchill Downs early this week "because it's easier to get over to Ellis from here," said Vance, speaking from Louisville.

Caressing has been assigned 115 pounds for the Gardenia, two fewer than topweighted Minister's Baby, who spotted her six pounds in their latest meeting. With weights, the other probables for the Gardenia are Happily Unbridled, 116; Gal on the Go, 115; Lakenheath, 115; Softly, 114; and Town Queen, 111. Racing officials said possible starters are Katy Kat, 114, and Red n'Gold, 114.

Like most of the top contenders in the Gardenia, Minister's Baby is based primarily at Churchill. In fact, Lakenheath, a Chicago-based filly trained by Gene Cilio, is the only out-of-state invader expected to run.

The Grade 3 Gardenia is the only graded stakes of the 41-day Ellis Park meet.