07/20/2003 11:00PM

Golden Apples looks good to go

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DEL MAR, Calif. - Golden Apples has not raced this year, but last year's champion female turf runner is ready for her scheduled return in Saturday's Grade 1, $400,000 John C. Mabee Handicap at Del Mar. Ben Cecil, who trains Golden Apples, was thrilled with the way Golden Apples looked during her final workout on Monday, when she breezed five furlongs in 1:03.40 on a firm turf course on a beautiful summer morning.

"I genuinely think she's better than last year," Cecil said. "She's coming up to this race as well as I could possibly hope for. She was really good today. It was just what she needed, a little something to stretch her legs."

Golden Apples had a chip removed from each ankle following last year's Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf. Cecil pointed her for the Mabee - formerly the Ramona Handicap - hoping it would be the first start in a campaign that is scheduled to include the Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington Park and the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf at Santa Anita.

"It's nice when everything works out," Cecil said. "She's an easy [mare] in every way."

Golden Apples had exercise rider David Meah aboard for the drill, which was accomplished around orange cones, known as dogs. Gary Stevens has the mount on Saturday. Patrick Valenzuela, who rode Golden Apples last year, has chosen to ride the Bobby Frankel-trained Tates Creek in the Mabee.

The Mabee is shaping up as an outstanding race. In addition to Golden Apples and Tates Creek, the field for the 1 1/8-mile grass race is expected to include Dublino, Magic Mission, and Megahertz.

Azeri may run in Hirsch

For the first time since Cigar started in the 1996 Pacific Classic, a reigning Horse of the Year is expected to race at the Del Mar meeting, which begins on Wednesday.

Azeri, who has won 10 consecutive races, is being strongly considered for the $300,000 Clement Hirsch Handicap on Aug. 10 by her owner, Michael Paulson, and her trainer, Laura de Seroux. Although they have not ruled out a start against males in the $750,000 Whitney Handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 2 or the $250,000 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar on Aug. 3, a start in the Hirsch would allow Azeri to remain in the filly and mare division and race near her home base of San Luis Rey Downs in northern San Diego county.

"We'll keep an eye on the Whitney," de Seroux said on Monday. "I want to keep her fresh for the Breeders' Cup."

In the Hirsch, Azeri could face a highly respected new opponent in Got Koko, who swept the La Canada series at Santa Anita last winter but has not started since finishing fourth in the Santa Margarita Invitational Handicap in March. Got Koko worked one mile in 1:41 on Sunday morning at Del Mar for trainer Bruce Headley.

On Monday, Azeri worked five furlongs in 59 seconds at San Luis Rey Downs. She has not started since winning the Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park on June 21.

"She's just right," de Seroux said. "I saw that she could go better than that, and that's where I like to see her. It was under wraps. She was being restrained."

Dublino works effortlessly

Dublino, who was second in the Beverly Hills Handicap at Hollywood Park in her last start, worked evenly with her de Seroux-trained stablemate Just Wonder, breezing a half-mile on the turf in 51.40 seconds with jockey Kent Desormeaux.

"That was beautiful," said de Seroux, who hustled over to Del Mar after Azeri's San Luis Rey Downs work. "They quickened up just a little bit."

Desormeaux, back in Southern California after spending much of the last two months in Japan, got off Dublino, smiled and said, "She's just so explosive."

Just Wonder, who won the Cinema Handicap in his last start, is heading to the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park on Aug. 16, de Seroux said. Exercise rider Brian Eide, who worked Azeri on Monday, was aboard Just Wonder.

De Seroux said her top older male turf horse, Ballingarry, would make his next start in the Sword Dancer Handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 9.

Ministers Wild Cat skipping Oceanside

Ministers Wild Cat would have been one of the top choices had he competed in Wednesday's Oceanside Stakes, but the oft-injured colt suffered another minor setback that kept him out of the race.

"He grabbed a quarter and it's still stinging him," said his trainer, Neil Drysdale. "We had to cut a way a little bit of the foot, and it's still a little tender."

Drysdale said Ministers Wild Cat should be able to race in the Grade 3, $150,000 La Jolla Handicap on Aug. 16.

Ministers Wild Cat has won two races and was second in the El Camino Real Derby earlier this year. He has yet to race on turf, but he is a half-brother to War Chant, who won the Breeders' Cup Mile in 2000.

Lewis lowers expectations

Craig Lewis was the leading trainer at Del Mar last year - at least for one race, after winning the meet's opener. Lewis came out firing. He won two races opening day, several more before the first week was out, and finished the season with eight victories. This year, however, Lewis said he does not expect to get off to as fast a start.

"I would like to, but I don't have the ammunition," Lewis said. "It doesn't look likely, but I'm hopeful. I won two opening day last year, and I don't even have one in this year."

Lewis has been at Del Mar for a week, since it opened for training on July 13. He said Monday the main-track surface was in great condition, "until today."

"It's loose. It doesn't have enough water," Lewis said. "I don't get it. We can put a man

on the moon, but we can't keep a track

consistent."

o Sarava, last year's Belmont Stakes winner, worked Monday morning, but his time was not listed on Del Mar's official work tab. Now trained by Bob Baffert, Sarava could race this weekend. He has not raced since the 2002 Belmont, when he was trained by Ken McPeek. "He worked good. He's doing great," said Baffert, who said Sarava's comeback has been delayed by quarter cracks.

o Jockey Martin Pedroza has received a three-day suspension for his ride aboard Consecrate in the sixth race last Wednesday at Hollywood Park. Pedroza was cited for causing interference approaching the turn. Consecrate finished seventh in a five-furlong maiden race for 2-year-olds. The suspension begins Friday and continues through Sunday.

- additional reporting by Steve Andersen