03/20/2002 12:00AM

Golden Apples in tough yet again

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ARCADIA, Calif. - Since she arrived in this country last August, Golden Apples has never had an easy race. The $150,000 Santa Ana Handicap on Saturday at Santa Anita will continue that trend.

Trained by Ben Cecil for Gary Tanaka, was one of the nation's top 3-year-old turf fillies last summer and fall, winning the Del Mar Oaks and Las Palmas Handicap, finishing second in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup, and third in the Matriarch Stakes. She was competitive against her own age group and older fillies and mares.

Experience from those major stakes will help the 4-year-old Golden Apples in the Grade 2 Santa Ana, which is run over 1 1/8 miles on turf.

The Santa Ana is expected to draw Starine, the winner of the Grade 1 Matriarch Stakes last November; Astra, the winner of the Grade 1 Beverly Hills Handicap last June; Janet, the winner of the Grade 1 Yellow Ribbon Stakes last September; and Tout Charmant, a multiple stakes winning millionaire. Crazy Ensign, Desiraes My Candy, and So Wistfullee, who is expected to set the pace, will be longshots.

The Santa Ana will help to establish the rankings of California's tough female turf division as major races such as the $250,000 Santa Barbara Handicap here on April 20 and the $500,000 Gamely Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park on May 27 draw closer.

"It will be a tough race," Cecil said.

Astra, Starine, and Tout Charmant share top weight of 122 pounds. Astra was entered for the Buena Vista Handicap in February but was scratched when a skin rash developed.

Starine is the likely favorite. Like Golden Apples, she has not started since the Matriarch Stakes, which she won by a convincing 2 1/2 lengths over a yielding course. Cecil spent the winter wondering if the outcome would have been different for Golden Apples had the course been firmer.

"She didn't like the going and was the only one that made up any ground that day," Cecil said.

After the Matriarch, Golden Apples was given a one-month break on a local farm before rejoining Cecil's stable. Because of the drought-like conditions that have hit Southern California in recent months, her training has not been interrupted by wet tracks.

"She won't be 100 percent cranked up for it, but she's training well," Cecil said. "I can't knock anything that she's done."

The Santa Ana is the only graded stakes of the weekend at Santa Anita. Saturday's program also includes the $75,000 San Pedro Stakes for 3-year-olds over 6 1/2 furlongs. Werblin, who third in the San Vicente and San Rafael Stakes at this meeting, will be favored to win his first stakes.

On Sunday, Native Desert will be favored to win the $125,000 Crystal Water Handicap over a mile on turf for California-breds. Bella Belucci, third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last October, will be favored in the $75,000 Santa Paula Stakes for 3-year-old fillies over 6 1/2 furlongs.

Crafty C.T. out of Potrero Grande

A quarter crack will prevent Crafty C.T. from starting in the $200,000 Potrero Grande Breeders' Cup Handicap on March 30, his trainer, Howard Zucker, said.

The Potrero Grande, run over 6 1/2 furlongs, was a possibility for Crafty C.T. after he won an allowance race on March 2 in his 4-year-old debut. The $350,000 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct on April 13 is now Crafty C.T.'s next goal, Zucker said.

"I had to back off and missed some days," Zucker said. "He's never had a quarter crack, but he's grabbed a quarter a few times. We missed four days of training." Last year, Crafty C.T. won the Grade 2 San Rafael Stakes and finished second to eventual Horse of the Year Point Given in the Santa Anita Derby.

"I'll run him when he's right," Zucker said. "When he's right, he's a force to be reckoned with."

The Potrero Grande will also be missing Snow Ridge, who has won the first three open sprint stakes at this meeting. He will start in the Carter Handicap, his trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, said.

Kona Gold waiting till Hollywood

Kona Gold, the champion sprinter of 2000, worked a half-mile in 46.60 seconds on Wednesday.

He will not be ready at this meeting, but is likely to start at Hollywood Park this summer, trainer Bruce Headley said.

The 8-year-old Kona Gold has not started at Hollywood Park since he finished second in his debut in May 1998. In recent years, Headley has run Kona Gold at Santa Anita, had him skip Hollywood Park, and had him resume racing at Del Mar in preparation for the Breeders' Cup Sprint in the fall.

"I'll have to follow a different trail this year," Headley said.

Kona Gold's long-term goals remain the sprint stakes at Del Mar and the Breeders' Cup Sprint, Headley said.

Spain, the winner of the 2000 Breeders' Cup Distaff, worked five furlongs in 1:00.80, and is being pointed for the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park on April 6.

New Saturday TV show

Santa Anita on Wednesday announced the launch of a three-hour television program that will be presented over the next three Saturdays on an over-the-air station in the Los Angeles area, KDOC, Channel 56.

The program, "Santa Anita Now," will promote the track's new advance deposit wagering system, XpressBet, which allows customers to place bets from home via telephone or through the Internet.

The new program will enable television viewers to watch nearly all the Santa Anita racing card. Currently, the Fox Sports Net 2 cable network presents one hour of live racing daily from 4 to 5 p.m.

"Santa Anita Now" will show races 2 through 7 from Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields and will be produced by Santa Anita's television department.

Santa Anita is buying the air time from KDOC, according to Jack Liebau, the track's president. "It's not an arm and a leg, but it's not cheap," Liebau said of the cost.

The program will run on March 23, March 30, and April 6, the day of the Santa Anita Derby. Possible programming on the final two Saturdays of the winter-spring meeting, April 13 and 20, will be discussed at a later date.

Solar Bee takes dash

Solar Bee ($9) won the first race of the meeting for 2-year-olds on Wednesday, zipping two furlongs in 21.66 seconds. Ridden by Martin Pedroza, Solar Bee held off a late surge from Lady Eddie to win the dash for California-bred fillies by a nose.

"Martin said she got out in front too fast and stopped," her trainer, Lance Stokes, said.

Magic Smoke, who finished third, was bumped severely at the start but closed ground in the final 100 yards.

Solar Bee, owned by Bill Peeples, is entered in the Barretts May sale of 2-year-olds in training on May 13-14. Stokes said there was a possibility that Solar Bee would be withdrawn from the sale, but noted that her full-brother Solar Blast, a winner over two furlongs last year, was sold at that sale.

* Pedroza won the first four races on Wednesday's program, none of them aboard a favorite.