04/04/2007 11:00PM

Round Pond tries to bounce back from loss

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The bit of luster that Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Round Pond might have lost in finishing fourth in her seasonal debut last month could be restored on Saturday when she starts in the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park.

The 1 1/16-mile race is one of the year's most prestigious for fillies and mares, and it is one of two significant stakes on the card. The Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap will also be run here Saturday, the second day of the track's Racing Festival of the South.

Round Pond raced at Oaklawn in 2005 and 2006 and boasts a 5-for-6 local record. In her last race here she defeated Grade 1 winner Happy Ticket by a neck in the Azeri Breeders' Cup last March.

Round Pond is the 120-pound highweight for the Apple Blossom following a season in which she stormed to a 5 1/2-length win in the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4. She will face seven others Saturday, including fellow Grade 1 winners Take D' Tour and Lemons Forever. Adding further intrigue to the race are divisional up-and-comers Ermine, India, and Baghdaria, as well as Rahys' Appeal and River Savage, who each ran third in Grade 1 races last out at Santa Anita.

Round Pond made her first start since the Breeders' Cup on March 11, finishing fourth in the Grade 2 Rampart Handicap at Gulfstream Park. She was the 2-5 favorite, and finished 11 lengths behind the winner, Miss Shop. It was a surprising loss, but there was more to the defeat than meets the eye, and her connections are looking for her to take a significant step forward Saturday.

"We had a little problem with her first start," said Michael Matz, who trains Round Pond. "She tied up before her first start. She didn't run as well as we expected her to, but I hope after having a race underneath her she'll improve.

"She's been fine since then."

Edgar Prado, who was aboard Round Pond in the Breeders' Cup and the Rampart, follows her to Oaklawn, where she will break from post 7.

"She'll be right off the pace, and I hope the end result is like the Breeders' Cup," said Matz.

Ermine could be the chief threat. Second to Balance last out in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Handicap at Santa Anita on March 10, she drew post 4 and will be ridden by Eddie Castro.

"She usually breaks sharp, but then she's one that likes to settle off of them," said Ronny Werner, who trains Ermine. "She's a stalker."

India comes into the Apple Blossom unbeaten around two turns, with her three route wins all coming in stakes. Her latest came in the local prep for the Apple Blossom, the Grade 3 Azeri, which she won by a head here March 10. It was her first race since Oct. 7.

"I think she should improve a little bit off that race," said Todd Pletcher, who trains India. "I thought we were kind of riding a fine line there. We had her good enough to get the job done the other day. It was a five-month layoff and going long for the first time this year, so I would expect her to improve a little bit."

Joe Bravo has the mount on India.

Baghdaria, a three-time Grade 3 winner in 2006, won her seasonal debut in her last start, when she led throughout for a 7 1/4-length win in the $75,000 Sweetheart at Delta Downs on March 2. She has since worked five furlongs in 59.20 seconds at Churchill, and will break from post 8 under Eddie Razo Jr.

"She can position herself where she needs to be according to pace," said Tom Amoss, who trains Baghdaria. "If there's not a lot of pace, she can be on the lead as she was at Delta. If there's a lot of pace, she can sit off of it."

Take D' Tour will be prominent. She wired the field in the Grade 3 Stage Door Betty at Calder two races ago, earning a field-best Beyer Figure of 110. Eibar Coa has the mount for trainer David Fawkes.