04/01/2003 12:00AM

Kudos tuned for Oaklawn repeat

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Kudos is peaking at the right time. Set to defend his title Saturday in the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap against a field that includes Medaglia d'Oro, Kudos could not be doing better, said his trainer, Richard Mandella.

"I expect him to run his best race," said Mandella.

The Grade 2 Oaklawn, which shares a card with the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap, will be Kudos's third start back from an almost 10-month layoff.

He had surgery to remove a bone chip from his ankle after last year's Oaklawn, run as a Grade 1, and returned to action on Jan. 4 with a second-place finish to Congaree in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap at Santa Anita.

From there, Kudos finished third to Milwaukee Brew for the second straight year in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap on March 1.

"He ran a nice race," said Mandella of Big Cap. "It sets him up. I expect a really good race from him. I'm not sure if we can be beat Medaglia d'Oro. We'll have to find out. I don't know the locals, but I know Medaglia d'Oro is a first-class horse. I have a lot of respect for him."

Kudos will carry seven fewer pounds than Medaglia d'Oro as the 115-pound second highweight Saturday. He was to fly to Oaklawn on Wednesday morning, and will be ridden by Alex Solis.

Earlier in his career, Kudos had raced mostly on grass. But last year, Mandella decided to race him on dirt, and that is the surface on which he won his only Grade 1.

"He's better on the dirt, but he wasn't bad on the grass," said Mandella.

Kudos, who would become a millionaire with a win in the Oaklawn, races for his breeders, Jerome and Ann Moss.

Crafty Shaw is expected for the Oaklawn, while possibles include Colorful Tour and Slider.

Special double Saturday

The Apple Blossom, which will be the 5-year-old debut of 2002 Horse of the Year Azeri, and the Oaklawn Handicap, will be linked by a special daily double on Saturday.

Last year, the wager paid $14.80 when Azeri won the Apple Blossom and Kudos the Oaklawn.

This year, the Apple Blossom will go as the eighth race and the Oaklawn as the 11th on a 12-race card.

Azeri had four probable rivals as of Tuesday: Take Charge Lady, Affluent, Mandy's Gold, and Rhiana.

Great Notion, 'Vixen' work for Derby

Great Notion and Defrere's Vixen, who finished one-two in a maiden special weight race last November at Churchill Downs, both worked at Oaklawn on Tuesday in preparation for starts in the Grade 2, $500,000 Arkansas Derby on April 12.

Great Notion worked five furlongs in 59.40 seconds, while Defrere's Vixen, fifth last out in the Grade 2, $750,000 Louisiana Derby for trainer Steve Asmussen, worked six furlongs in 1:14.60.

The work was Great Notion's first since he finished a troubled second in the $125,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. Before that start, he was a nine-length winner of the $75,000 Southwest.

"I thought it was a good work for him," said trainer Darrin Miller, who was aboard for the move. "He finished nicely, and is in his feed tub right now. Nothing much takes him out of that."

There were six other probables for the Arkansas Derby as of Tuesday, including Man Among Men and Ten Cents a Shine.

Rare triple for Von Hemels

Trainer Don Von Hemel and his sons, trainers Donnie Von Hemel and Kelly Von Hemel, each won a race on the Oaklawn program last Friday, which was the first time all three men had won on the same card and a rarity in racing.

Kelly Von Hemel won the sixth with Magic Prospector ($23.20); Donnie Von Hemel the eighth with Freedom Hill ($6.40); and Don Von Hemel the ninth with Corrigan ($4.60).