03/26/2004 12:00AM

Island Fashion works with eye on Apple Blossom

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Island Fashion may join Azeri and Wild Spirit in the starting gate for the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park on Saturday. A 1 1/16-mile race for fillies and mares, the Apple Blossom will share a card with the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap, and together the stakes will ring in the 31st Racing Festival of the South.

The Festival is made up of nine stakes worth a record $2.6 million. The stakes will be run over the final week of the meet, with at least one stakes a day through April 10. The finale that day is the Grade 2, $1 million Arkansas Derby.

Island Fashion took on male rivals in her last start, finishing second to Southern Image in the Grade 1, $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 6.

"She came out of the race in perfect condition," said Marcelo Polanco, who trains Island Fashion. "She's had a couple of works since the race, and she's doing better than ever."

Polanco said a final decision on the Apple Blossom depends on how Island Fashion trains over the next few days.

On Friday, Island Fashion breezed five furlongs in 1:01.60 at Santa Anita.

"She was very comfortable, came home good, and galloped out in 1:14," Polanco said. "I had to walk her myself back to the barn because she was so on the muscle."

Kent Desormeaux has the return call, and Island Fashion is tentatively scheduled to fly to town Wednesday aboard a plane carrying a number of horses from Southern California.

Azeri was made the 123-pound highweight for the Apple Blossom, a race she has won the past two years. Wild Spirit is second highweight at 119, and Island Fashion is weighted next on the list at 118.

Azeri carried 123 pounds last year in the Apple Blossom, and in her last start, a third-place finish in the Grade 2 Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap on Sept. 28, she carried 128.

Another horse being considered for the Apple Blossom is Star Parade, winner of the Grade 1 Santa Maria at Santa Anita on Feb. 16. Star Parade, who is trained by Darrell Vienna, is weighted at 114. Others pointing for the race are Golden Sonata (112) and Keys to the Heart (111).

Probables for the Oaklawn Handicap are Peace Rules, Saint Liam, Private Emblem, and Sir Cherokee. Sonic West, winner of the Grade 3 Razorback last out, is probably going to run in the Grade 3, $100,000 Fifth Season on April 7, said trainer Tom Van Berg. Also pointing for the Fifth Season is Louisiana Handicap winner Spanish Empire, said trainer Steve Asmussen.

Espinoza on Borrego

Borrego, runner-up in the Grade 2 Louisiana Derby, is one of seven early probables for the Arkansas Derby. He will be ridden by Victor Espinoza, said trainer Beau Greely.

Smarty Jones is the early favorite for the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby, based on his powerful win in the $200,000 Rebel. He is the lone 3-year-old eligible for a $5 million bonus from Oaklawn. The Rebel was the first leg, and if Smarty Jones wins the Arkansas Derby and the Kentucky Derby, he will receive the bonus. Other early probables for the Arkansas Derby are Foxtrot Oscar, Mr. Jester, Pro Prado, Purge, and Shadowland.

Cryptograph, who was fourth in the Rebel, is being considered for one of three races, including the Arkansas Derby, said his trainer, Donnie Von Hemel. Cryptograph is also possible for the $75,000 Northern Spur for 3-year-olds on the Arkansas Derby undercard and the $75,000 Grand Prairie Turf Challenge at Lone Star on April 24.

Two Down Automatic, who finished three-quarters of a length behind Smarty Jones in the $100,000 Southwest, is being pointed for the Northern Spur, said his trainer, Steve Asmussen.

The draw for the Arkansas Derby will be held April 7. As is customary, entries for the final week of the meet will be drawn at least 72 hours in advance. The Arkansas Derby will be telecast on NBC.

Shake You Down eyes Count Fleet

Shake You Down, who came out of his fifth-place finish in the $50,000 Hot Springs with mucus in his air passages, is responding well to treatment and remains under consideration for the Grade 3, $150,000 Count Fleet on April 8. He is currently based at Oaklawn.

"We're still shooting for the race," said Scott Lake, who trains Shake You Down.

Lake said the final decision depends on how Shake You Down trains over the next week. The Count Fleet has three other early probables: Beau's Town, Skeet, and Where's the Ring.

Elusive Diva heading to Fantasy

Elusive Diva, an impressive entry-level allowance winner last out at Santa Anita, is one of four early probables for the Grade 2, $200,000 Fantasy for 3-year-old fillies. A 1 1/16-mile race, the Fantasy will be run April 9.

"She's a rapidly improving filly," said Mark Glatt, who trains Elusive Diva.

Elusive Diva is scheduled to fly into Hot Springs on April 5.

Other probables are Miss Coronado, Island Sand, and Stephan's Angel, and Turn to Lass is possible. Platinum Ballet and Yoursmineours are possible for the race, as well as the $75,000 Instant Racing on the Arkansas Derby undercard, said their trainer, Von Hemel.

- additional reporting by Brad Free