Updated on 09/17/2011 11:03AM

Golden Apples ripe off shelf

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Golden Apples, shown with trainer Ben Cecil, makes her 2003 debut in Saturday's Grade 1, $400,000 John Mabee Handicap at Del Mar.

DEL MAR, Calif. - Even for a reigning Eclipse champion, Golden Apples faces a difficult test when she makes her 2003 debut in Saturday's Grade 1, $400,000 John Mabee Handicap at Del Mar.

Unraced since finishing second in the Matriarch Stakes at Hollywood Park last December, Golden Apples embarks on a campaign that owner Gary Tanaka and trainer Ben Cecil hope will lead to a defense of her title and a victory in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf on Oct. 25.

"I'll be disappointed if she doesn't win with the way she's training," Cecil said.

To launch her season with a victory, Golden Apples will need an outstanding performance in the Mabee, run over 1 1/8 miles on turf for fillies and mares.

The Grade 1 Mabee Handicap is the eighth race on a strong 10-race program. The $200,000 Bing Crosby Breeders' Cup Handicap over six furlongs is the sixth race. The Crosby drew nine entrants, including Kona Gold, the 2000 champion sprinter, Avanzado, Bluesthestandard, and Captain Squire, all stakes winners at Santa Anita earlier this year. Also in are defending champion Disturbingthepeace and Louisiana shipper Beau's Town.

In the seventh race, Sarava, the 2002 Belmont Stakes winner, returns from a 14-month layoff in a $70,000 allowance race over 1 1/16 miles. The race is Sarava's first start for trainer Bob Baffert.

Golden Apples has been pointed for the Mabee for several months.

Her leading competition includes Tates Creek, Saturday's 123-pound topweight who won the Gamely Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park in May, and Dublino, the runner-up in the Gamely and Beverly Hills handicaps. Dublino won the Del Mar Oaks last August over this course, a race that Golden Apples won in her U.S. debut in 2001.

Last year, Golden Apples returned from a three-month layoff caused by illness and finished second by a neck to Affluent in the Mabee, which was formerly known as the Ramona Handicap. Golden Apples later won the Beverly D. and Yellow Ribbon Stakes and finished fourth in the Filly and Mare Turf at Arlington Park. She is expected to race in the same stakes this year.

In recent weeks, Cecil has repeatedly said that he is not concerned about the layoff for Golden Apples, citing her workouts on turf at Hollywood Park and Del Mar as proof of her fitness.

"We would have given a break at the end of last year, so she really only missed the Gamely," Cecil said. "We haven't missed a ton of time.

"This year, I know she's fit. She's as fit as I can get her off of works alone. The Beverly D. is three weeks away and I won't have to do a lot between races. She's as sound as she can be, and happy."

Despite the layoff, Golden Apples may be favored. Bettors will be attracted to Tates Creek, who is remarkable over 1 1/8 miles on turf. Trained by Bobby Frankel, Tates Creek has won her last four starts at the distance, all in stakes - the 2002 Diana Handicap at Saratoga, and her last three starts: the Las Palmas, San Gorgonio, and Gamely handicaps.

Jockey Patrick Valenzuela has ridden both Golden Apples and Tates Creek in the past year, and opts to ride Tates Creek here. Gary Stevens is on Golden Apples for the first time.

The race lacks pace. Tates Creek races near the front, as does the longshot Voz de Colegiala, a group stakes winner in Chile last year who won an allowance race in her U.S. debut on June 12.

"I know it's a hard race," Cecil said. "My only concern is the pace."