03/25/2002 1:00AM

Golden Apples turning into 24-karat gem

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ARCADIA, Calif. - The $450,000 that Gary Tanaka paid for Golden Apples last summer has turned out to be a bargain.

On Saturday, won her third stakes in this country, the Grade 2 Santa Ana Handicap at Santa Anita to stake a claim as the leading turf female in California.

Considering the concentration of major stakes for turf females on the West Coast throughout the year, that distinction carries national implications.

In the Santa Ana, Golden Apples was a convincing winner against a field that included four other Grade 1 winners.

"I wasn't worried about the Grade 2 or the $150,000," trainer Ben Cecil said. "We thought she was good enough, but she had to prove it against those fillies."

On Sunday, Cecil said Golden Apples emerged from the race in ideal condition.

He said the 4-year-old Golden Apples will be pointed for the $250,000 Santa Barbara Handicap over 1 1/4 miles on April 20, when she will have to defend her status against a strong field that is expected to include Astra, who finished third in the Santa Ana.

Beyond that, Golden Apples will be pointed for the $500,000 Gamely Breeders' Cup Handicap over 1 1/8 miles on turf at Hollywood Park on May 27, a race that's expected to draw Starine, who finished second to Golden Apples on Saturday.

"Then we can give her a break and get ready for Del Mar," Cecil said.

Last summer, Golden Apples made her U.S. debut at Del Mar, winning the Grade 1 Oaks. Last year in Ireland, she placed third in a Group 2 stakes.

Since Golden Apples was acquired by Tanaka, she has earned $580,000. She followed the Del Mar Oaks win with a second in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland, a victory in the Las Palmas Handicap at Oak Tree, and a third in the Matriarch Stakes at Hollywood Park.

"I think she made the $450,000 back in three races," Cecil said. "It's pretty exciting to have her. It makes it a lot easier to get up in the morning."

Climate sharp in comeback

Back problems have forced several career interruptions for Climate, but when he races he can be brilliant.

On Friday, in a $70,000 allowance race, Climate led throughout to win by a length. The race was his first start in 14 months, but it was his third consecutive win. Climate ran the mile on turf in 1:32.98, the fastest clocking of the meeting at the distance. He beat stakes winners Shibboleth and Ladies Din, both of whom were returning from layoffs.

The 6-year-old Climate has won 4 of 9 starts for owner B. Wayne Hughes and trainer Ron Ellis. Ellis said Climate will make his stakes debut in the $400,000 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, which is part of the Kentucky Derby undercard at Churchill Downs on May 4.

Climate is a confirmed front-runner. Last year, he led by as many as 12 lengths in an allowance race over 1 1/4 miles before scoring by "only" four lengths. Problems with stifles and hocks have led to layoffs, Ellis said.

"It's always been his back," Ellis said. "The trouble has been with the hocks and stifles on the right side. He's always been a clean-legged horse in front."

Climate wore blinkers in his two wins last year, but did not have them on Friday. He will wear them again in the Woodford Reserve after Ellis became concerned with the horse's running style.

"I'll put blinkers back on him," Ellis said. "We need to keep him straight. He does a lot of things kind of unusually. If I can ever keep him going straight, he should be something."

Werblin staying in sprints

Werblin, who disappointed as the favorite in Saturday's San Pedro Stakes for 3-year-olds with a second-place finish to Roman Dancer, will stay in sprints, trainer Eduardo Inda said.

Werblin will be pointed for the $150,000 Laz Barrera Memorial Stakes over seven furlongs for 3-year-olds on May 27. Inda said Werblin's third-place finish behind Came Home in the San Rafael Stakes on March 2 may have been more taxing than he realized.

"Maybe the last race took a little more out of him," he said. "He was a little empty."

Frankel hits couple of speed bumps

Trainer Bobby Frankel's remarkable run this year hit a bump this weekend when Starine (Santa Ana Handicap at Santa Anita) and Beat Hollow (Explosive Bid Handicap at Fair Grounds) finished second in major turf stakes. But his dirt division added a new player when Aldebaran won a seven-furlong allowance race at Santa Anita on Sunday.

Ridden by Kent Desormeaux, Aldebaran closed from seventh in a field of eight to win by 3 1/2 lengths in 1:21.77. The winner of the Nassau Handicap last October at Belmont Park, Aldebaran was making his first start on dirt.

Came Home is the one to beat

Came Home will be favored to win his third consecutive stakes in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 6, the main Kentucky Derby prep of this meeting.

As of Sunday, a field of eight was expected. Came Home is expected to face Danthebluegrassman, Easy Grades, Fonz's, Lusty Latin, Tracemark, U S S Tinosa, and Yougottawanna.

Tracemark finished fourth in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes on March 17.

Trained by Craig Dollase for Edward McGrath, Tracemark has only a maiden victory to his credit in 12 starts.

Kalookan Queen tops sprint finale

The $200,000 Potrero Grande Breeders' Cup Handicap, the final major sprint of the meeting, is the highlight of this weekend's racing.

Kalookan Queen, the 6-year-old mare who won the Grade 1 Santa Monica Handicap on Jan. 26, faces males for the first time in the Potrero Grande, run over 6 1/2 furlongs.

Kalookan Queen's opposition will include Alyzig, Ceeband, D'Wildcat, and Pie n Burger. Reba's Gold, who finished second in the Tokyo City Handicap on March 9, is a candidate. Bruce Headley trains Kalookan Queen.

The restricted Santa Lucia Handicap is the main race on Sunday. Kalatiara, the winner of the Grade 3 Royal Heroine Stakes on turf last July at Hollywood Park, will make her main track debut. Run over 1 1/16 miles, the Santa Lucia is expected to draw Alexine, Crazy Ensign, Critikola, La Ronge, and Slapstick.

Scott returns from 14-month absence

Joy Scott, one of the few female riders on the Southern California Thoroughbred circuit, returns from a 14-month break on Wednesday.

Scott, 42, was out because of a broken leg suffered in a spill at Los Alamitos in January 2001. She attempted a comeback last summer, but the leg failed to heal properly, requiring additional surgery.

On Wednesday, Scott rides Toss Me a Freebe in the sixth race, a sprint for $10,500 to $12,500 claimers.

Scott resumed exercising horses in late February, and rode at Los Alamitos on Saturday night, finishing second in a stakes for Arabian-breds.