02/20/2003 1:00AM

Salty Farma a surprise dirt hit


NEW ORLEANS - It hasn't been the smoothest trip, but Salty Farma has gotten to the point in her career where she is ready to win a stakes race. It's just not on the surface that everyone expected.

Salty Farma raced on turf almost all last year, but trainer Dave Kassen switched her to dirt in a Jan. 25 allowance race and Salty Farma won by more than eight lengths, running the fastest mile of this meet, 1:36.64. If Salty Farma reproduces that race, the other eight horses entered in Saturday's $150,000 Chou Croute Handicap are running for second.

Kassen trains Salty Farma for owners Ed Weaver and Larry Bielfeldt, and the job has not been easy. Salty Farma almost bowed a tendon before she even raced, and Kassen described her as "a big, evil filly as a 2-year-old." Salty Farma often had trouble with her feet, and last season the problem came to a head.

"Her feet were bothering her for a year," Kassen said. "We spent so much time poulticing and standing her in a tub. We ended up cutting half her foot away last summer."

Seemingly, the work has paid off. Salty Farma was a close fourth on grass here in the Dec. 27 Furl Sail, a strong race, and Kassen said she didn't begin peaking until after that start.

"I knew she could run on dirt," he said, "but there are some horses that you run on turf and they won't come back to dirt. It was a little bit of a surprise to see her run that fast."

Salty Farma's foot flared up shortly after the big win, but Kassen said the problem was brought under control. "She's fit, I know that," he said.

Salty Farma pressed a quick pace and took over on the turn in her last start, and she's one of only two horses with speed in Saturday's 1 1/16-mile race. The other is Ifyouprefersilver, who has started in five races and won four of them. Owned by Cobra Farm and trained by Mike Stidham, Ifyouprefersilver comes off a half-length win Dec. 21 in a $30,000 stakes at Sam Houston.

Lakenheath is the Chou Croute highweight at 118 pounds, but was beaten more than 14 lengths by Salty Farma in her last start. A return to her more typical form will put Lakenheath right back in the hunt, but Lakenheath had to work hard to win the Truly Bound here Jan. 3 over a soft field.

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