01/28/2003 1:00AM

Golden Apples glitters brightest


Golden Apples arrived in Southern California from Ireland in August 2001, cleared quarantine on a Thursday, and won the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks two days later.

Little did owner Gary Tanaka and trainer Ben Cecil realize at the time, but it was the start of a United States career that would lead to an Eclipse Award as the nation's outstanding turf female of 2002.

"We couldn't have dreamed of this," Cecil said Monday night, when the award was presented. "Ever since we bought her, it's been great."

The success of the 2001 campaign was the prologue for Golden Apples's 2002 season, which ended with three wins in seven starts and earnings of $1,111,680.

Golden Apples did not win the division's richest race last year - she finished fourth in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf - but her consistent record gave her the title over Starine, the winner of the Filly and Mare Turf, and Astra, a three-time stakes winner in 2002.

Sired by Pivotal and bred in Ireland by James Egan and David Hanley, Golden Apples in 2002 raced primarily in Southern California, where Cecil is based. She won the Santa Ana Handicap in March, but was second in the Santa Barbara Handicap at Santa Anita in April. It was later discovered that she was suffering from a throat abscess at the time.

Cecil did not start Golden Apples during the Hollywood Park spring-summer meeting, but chose to focus on the late summer and fall. Golden Apples returned in the Ramona Handicap at Del Mar in late July, finishing second to Affluent.

She rebounded with a gritty victory in the Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington Park on Aug. 17, and enhanced her reputation with a one-length win in the Yellow Ribbon Stakes at Santa Anita on Oct. 5.

Golden Apples was favored in the Filly and Mare Turf, but was bothered early and was never able to recover on a yielding turf course. She closed from 11th in a field of 12 to finish two lengths behind Starine.

"The disappointment of the year was the Breeders' Cup," Cecil said. "I think if we'd had firm ground, if things had gone our way, we could have won it. The highlight was the Yellow Ribbon and the Beverly D."

Golden Apples made one more start in 2002, finishing second to Irish invader Dress to Thrill in the Matriarch Stakes at Hollywood Park on Thanksgiving weekend.

Golden Apples underwent surgery in early December to have bone chips removed from an ankle, but is set to return to training in March. Her goal will be the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf at the Oak Tree at Santa Anita meeting in October.

"That's the race that everyone wants to win," Cecil said. "Hopefully she'll come back and we will."