04/01/2004 1:00AM

Island Fashion looks to prove herself - again

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Despite compiling a record that includes three Grade 1 wins and a runner-up effort against males in the Santa Anita Handicap, Island Fashion has not been favored in any of her last 11 starts. A win in Saturday's Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park would go a long way toward earning her the respect that has eluded her throughout her career.

Island Fashion, who will vie for favoritism with Azeri and Wild Spirit in the Apple Blossom, is the "now" horse in this year's running of the 1 1/16-mile race for fillies and mares. While both Azeri and Wild Spirit are coming off an extended layoff, Island Fashion is in the best form of her career. She was second to Southern Image last out in the Grade 1, $1 million Santa Anita Handicap, and earned a 111 Beyer Speed Figure, the highest last-race number among all starters in the Apple Blossom.

Island Fashion, a 4-year-old, has never faced Azeri or Wild Spirit, but she has faced some quality rivals. She won the Grade 1 Alabama last year over Awesome Humor and Spoken Fur, and two races back in the Grade 1 Santa Monica won in a field that included Got Koko.

"She's very special," said Marcelo Polanco, who trains Island Fashion for her breeder, Everest Stables. "Mentally, she's a professional. She doesn't get upset about anything. In the barn, she's very loving, but when it's time to run, she becomes a different animal.

"As soon as you put on the saddle, you can see her blood starts pumping and she gets on the muscle. She knows what's going to happen."

Island Fashion, an earner of $1.4 million, has sprinter's speed - she won the Grade 1 La Brea at seven furlongs in 1:21.60 in December - but she can back it up with stamina, as evidenced by the Big Cap and her win in the Alabama, both at 1 1/4 miles.

Polanco looks for her to be within striking distance in the Apple Blossom.

"She can take the lead, or she can lay right off the lead," said Polanco. "We'll just play it by ear."

Polanco, who is based in Southern California, has come to Oaklawn on a couple of occasions, but this will be his first visit as a trainer. He was the groom for the one-eyed Cassaleria when that horse came for the Arkansas Derby in 1982.

One of the last times he came to town was to accompany 1989 Santa Anita Handicap winner Martial Law for the Oaklawn Handicap. At the time, Polanco was an assistant to trainer Julio Canani.

Polanco said that after the Apple Blossom he might come back to Oaklawn with 3-year-old Mambo Train for the $1 million Arkansas Derby on April 10.

"It's one of the top options," he said.

Mambo Train won the $100,000 Turf Paradise Derby under Emile Ramsammy in his last start. Ramsammy would also have the mount in the Arkansas Derby.

For now, however, the focus is on Island Fashion. "It's going to be a very good race for the sport, and a very good race for Oaklawn," said Polanco, whose major goal this year for Island Fashion is the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Lone Star Park.

Another upset for Sir Cherokee?

Sir Cherokee, who won the biggest race of his life at Oaklawn last year when he captured the Grade 2, $500,000 Arkansas Derby at 55-1, will be making his first start at the track since that race in the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap.

Sir Cherokee will again be a big price due to the presence of Peace Rules and Saint Liam, the first two finishers in the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap. Sir Cherokee finished sixth in that race after taking the worst of a notorious crowding incident on the first turn.

"He was body sore for about a week after the race," said Mike Tomlinson, who trains Sir Cherokee for Domino Stud of Lexington.

With a clean trip, Sir Cherokee seems poised to make an impact Saturday. All meet long he has fired impressive works at Oaklawn.

"He's coming into this race physically as good as he's come into any race," said Tomlinson, who has given the mount to Terry Thompson.

* D. Wayne Lukas, who said he had strongly considered sending a string of horses to Oaklawn this meet, is the most successful trainer in Racing Festival of the South history. He has 11 major stakes wins during the series, and has a big shot to add to that total Saturday with Azeri in the Apple Blossom. One of Lukas's most memorable wins was with Althea in the Arkansas Derby in 1984.

* The forecast for Saturday is sunny with a high of 71 degrees. The infield will be open.