09/06/2002 12:00AM

'Graceful' inherits the lead


AUBURN, Wash. - The late defection of Always a Dixie, the 121-pound highweight and probable favorite for Sunday's 1 1/8-mile Belle Roberts Handicap at Emerald Downs, will leave just five older fillies and mares to vie for the $60,000 pot.

Always a Dixie, a winner of three of her four starts at Emerald Downs, all in stakes, was declared out of the race on Friday night by her trainer, Barbara Heads, who reported the filly had bruised a hoof.

Without Always a Dixie, Graceful Cat will inherit the favorite's role and probably the pacesetting duties as well. Graceful Cat, who won last season's Washington Oaks at the nine-furlong distance, is coming off a creditable second to Always a Dixie in the $100,000 Emerald Downs Distaff at a mile on Aug. 25. A daughter of Forest Wildcat trained by Sharon Ross, she normally assumes a stalking role, but she won last season's 1 1/16-mile Irish Day Handicap with a wire-to-wire effort, and her trainer feels she can adjust to any pace scenario.

"She is really a versatile filly," said Ross. "If she ends up on the lead, I'm sure that will be fine with her."

All four of Graceful Cat's opponents have done their best running from well off the pace, and two of them, Top Bracket and Stareaux, have no early speed at all. It will likely fall to Latter Day Paula or Sister Adiba to keep Graceful Cat from setting a false pace, and neither has been showing speed in recent races.

Latter Day Paula, second in last year's Belle Roberts, is coming off a blistering half-mile work in 46 seconds Monday and may be sharp enough to remain within striking distance of the likely favorite.

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