04/05/2006 11:00PM

Main rival out, but Happy Ticket won't get free ride

Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Happy Ticket is the 119-pound highweight in Saturday's Grade 1 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The top-class mares Happy Ticket and Star Parade will meet for the first time Saturday in the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park, and there is little separating the two, who will vie for favoritism in a field completed by Hollywood Story, Spun Sugar, La Reason, and Platinum Ballet.

Round Pond probably would have been the favorite had she been entered, but because multiple cuts on the left side of her mouth have not healed, she will not race, said her trainer, John Servis.

was second by a neck to Round Pond last out in a thrilling Grade 3 Azeri Breeders' Cup at Oaklawn, in which she raced outside of Round Pond throughout in what served as the local prep for the 1 1/16-mile Apple Blossom.

"That was one heck of a race from the get-go to the end," said Andrew Leggio Jr., who trains Happy Ticket for Stewart Madison. "It was great horse racing."

Leggio said Happy Ticket, who won the Grade 1 Ballerina at Saratoga in August and was second to champion Ashado in the Grade 1 Beldame in October, has thrived since the matchup with Round Pond. The race was her second start of the year, and she has since trained well at her base of Louisiana Downs.

"I think she's going to improve three to five lengths off that race," said Leggio. "She needed a race over this track."

Happy Ticket has been made the 119-pound highweight Saturday and will give two pounds to Star Parade.

A three-time Grade 1 winner, comes into her third Apple Blossom appearance off one of the best races of her career. She was a two-length winner of the Grade 1 Santa Maria Handicap at Santa Anita on Feb. 11. It was the second graded win Star Parade has scored in her last three starts, and she has been in top form since October.

"She's just kind of come back to herself," said Darrell Vienna, who trains Star Parade for Gary Tanaka.

A 7-year-old, Star Parade was second to Dream of Summer in last year's Apple Blossom. In 2004, she finished third to Azeri but was later elevated to second place. For this year's running, Star Parade worked a strong six furlongs in 1:12.20 on March 30.

Vienna has given the mount to Martin Pedroza. Robby Albarado has the mount on Happy Ticket, who could settle in behind Star Parade.

"We'll just have to play it as the race unfolds," said Leggio.

Grade 1 winner Hollywood Story rallied for third behind Star Parade last out in the Santa Maria. Trainer John Shirreffs said he would like Hollywood Story to race a little closer to the pace than she has in some of her recent races. He has given the mount to Luis Quinonez.

Spun Sugar won her seasonal debut with ease in an optional claimer at Gulfstream Park on March 6 and has since targeted the Apple Blossom. The winner of last year's Grade 2 Black-Eyed Susan, Spun Sugar is multiple Grade 1-placed. Trainer Todd Pletcher has given the mount to Mike Luzzi.

The Apple Blossom will go as the ninth of 12 races, and it shares the program with the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap.

The field

Apple Blossom Handicap
Purse: $500,000; 1 1/16 miles; Grade 1

1Platinum BalletM. Berry11215-1
2Happy TicketR. Albarado1193-2
3La ReasonT. Thompson11215-1
4Hollywood StoryL. Quinonez1166-1
5Star ParadeM. Pedroza1172-1
6Spun SugarM. Luzzi1165-2

* Track morning line odds