07/24/2002 12:00AM

Ramona a stepping-stone for Golden Apples


DEL MAR, Calif. - Ready or not, Golden Apples makes her first start in three months in Saturday's $400,000 John Mabee/Ramona Handicap.

A major stakes winner at Santa Anita in March, Golden Apples was rested through the spring after being treated for a cyst or abscess in her throat, under her epiglottis, trainer Ben Cecil said. The ailment was discovered after she finished second to Astra in the Santa Barbara Handicap at Santa Anita in April.

Ideally, Cecil says he would like to have a few more weeks to prepare the 4-year-old Golden Apples for the Grade 1 Ramona, but he wants to have her ready for the $700,000 Beverly D. Stakes at Arlington Park on Aug. 17.

"She's just started to show her old self in the last three weeks," Cecil said. "I want to get the race in and then go easy up to the Beverly D. That's where we'd like to go. She acts good, but I'd like to see her 30 pounds heavier. I'll be disappointed if she's not close."

Golden Apples has shown flashes of brilliance since she joined Cecil last summer, shortly after being privately acquired in Ireland by Gary Tanaka. Last year, she won the Del Mar Oaks and Las Palmas Handicap and placed in two other stakes.

Cecil is looking forward to the Ramona as a springboard to another tilt against Astra in the Beverly D. "I think down the road, we can beat Astra," Cecil said. "I'm looking forward to trying her - when we're right."

Bing Crosby, Eddie Read also on tap

Golden Apples is the 120-pound highweight in the Ramona, run for fillies and mares over 1 1/8 miles on turf. She is expected to face Crazy Ensign, Eurolink Raindance, Janet, Snowflake, and Surya.

Saturday's program also includes the $200,000 Bing Crosby Breeders' Cup Handicap over six furlongs. Kona Gold is trying for his third consecutive win in the race, but must beat D'wildcat, Freespool, Komax, Mellow Fellow, and Nuclear Debate.

Beat Hollow heads Sunday's $400,000 Eddie Read Handicap. Run over 1 1/8 miles on turf, the race will draw Redattore, Sarafan, and Suances, all stakes winners this year.

War Emblem in five-furlong work

With a new goal for August, War Emblem, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner, worked five furlongs in 1:01 on Wednesday at Del Mar, drawing praise from trainer Bob Baffert.

Earlier this week, Baffert said that War Emblem would not start in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on Aug. 4, but will wait for this track's showcase race - the $1 million Pacific Classic. The decision was based in part on the death Monday of the colt's owner, Prince Ahmed bin Salman.

If the workout is any indication of his form, War Emblem is enjoying his first summer at Del Mar. Under exercise rider Dana Barnes, War Emblem ran fractions of 12.80 and 37.40 seconds before finishing in 1:01.20, according to Baffert's stopwatch.

Baffert was impressed with the way War Emblem galloped out in six furlongs in 1:13.40 and seven furlongs in 1:25.60.

"He's just picking it up now," Baffert said as War Emblem galloped out. "He's like a gazelle."

After three months, Nakatani returns

One of the happiest people at Del Mar on opening day was jockey Corey Nakatani, who was eager to get back to work after being sidelined for nearly three months after an accident at Hollywood Park.

Nakatani suffered a concussion and said he had dizziness for another month. He started galloping horses again only two weeks ago, after deciding to await Del Mar's opening day to return to action.

"I always look forward to Del Mar," said Nakatani, who was the leading rider here in the summers of 1994 and 1998. "I've been pretty lucky here."

Two years ago, however, Nakatani suffered fractured ribs in an accident on the Del Mar turf. "This is the first time I've felt 100 percent in two years," Nakatani said. "I did some swimming and jogging, but there's nothing like race-riding to get you fit."

Three months ago, Nakatani was left woozy by the accident.

"If I went outside to walk around, I'd get dizzy," he said. "If I'd look quickly to the right, like if someone called my name and I turned too quickly, I'd get dizzy. I had migraine headaches. It felt like my head was going to explode. But the way I landed and hit my head, thank God it wasn't worse."

It will take awhile for Nakatani to get a full load of riding assignments. He had just two mounts on Wednesday's card and was named on four horses on Thursday. But opportunities should present themselves if he starts winning races, because he has been working horses of late for such high-profile trainers as Bob Baffert, Julio Canani, Neil Drysdale, and Bobby Frankel.

Habibti back training

Habibti, a Grade 1 winner who finished third in the Kentucky Oaks in May, rejoined trainer Bob Baffert's stable at Del Mar on Tuesday following a break at a local farm. The 3-year-old Habibti won the Hollywood Starlet Stakes last December at Hollywood Park. Plans for Officer are uncertain, according to trainer Richard Mulhall, the racing manager for the Thoroughbred Corp., Salman's racing operation.

Officer has not started since winning the Zany Tactics Stakes at Santa Anita in April. He was sidelined later that month after suffering a tendon injury.

"It's up in the air right now," Mulhall said.

Stable plan update postponed

Despite a notice being placed on Del Mar's overnight sheet alerting horsemen to an informational update on Del Mar's long-range, off-site stabling plans, so few owners, trainers, and jockeys showed up Tuesday morning that Del Mar management decided to postpone it.

Still, Joe Harper, Del Mar's president and general manager, said that "the wheels are turning, slowly," in regards to developing a year-round training center a few miles east of the racetrack.

"It will happen, but when is a question," Harper said. "There's still a question of how we will pay for it, but there might be an opportunity with the issuing of bonds. There are environmental issues, government agencies to deal with. It's at least a two-year deal, and we don't know what bumps in the road we'll hit. It's a huge master plan. But the process has started."

* Congaree, third in the 2001 Kentucky Derby and a stakes winner at Lone Star Park in May, worked seven furlongs in 1:23 on Wednesday. Trained by Baffert for Stonerside Stable, Congaree is being pointed for the $250,000 San Diego Handicap over 1 1/16 miles on Aug. 4.

- additional reporting by Jay Privman