03/13/2003 12:00AM

Turf specialist Bien Nicole tries the dirt

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Mandy's Gold is the probable favorite for the Grade 3, $200,000 Oaklawn Breeders' Cup at Oaklawn Park on Saturday, but she is not the only starter in the field who put together four consecutive stakes wins last year.

Bien Nicole won her four consecutive stakes on turf. On Saturday she will make her first start on dirt since September 2001, when she won her maiden.

Bien Nicole was scheduled to race on the main track at Oaklawn - where there is no turf course - in a Feb. 27 allowance, but snow forced the cancellation of the card and her connections chose to train up to the Oaklawn BC.

"Missing the race is not a problem," said Donnie Von Hemel, who trains Bien Nicole for John and Kristine Richter. "I'm not worried about being ready for the race. The bigger question is whether or not she can run on the dirt as well as she has on the turf."

There are several reasons for moving Bien Nicole back to the dirt, Von Hemel said.

"The Richters pointed out the fact that her family has run on the dirt in the past, and that's probably the biggest factor," Von Hemel said. "And of course, another factor is you're here, and there is no [turf] option.

"It's also a good question to answer at this point," he added. "She's so much better now than when she broke her maiden that you need to know if [dirt] is going to be something you can pursue later on."

Bien Nicole is by turf sire Bien Bien, but her dam is a daughter of dirt influence Flying Paster and also is a half-sister to Olympio, who won the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn in 1991.

Bien Nicole, who is 5, has won 8 races from 16 career starts for earnings of $384,080. Last year she won five consecutive races, with four of them coming at the 1 1/16-mile distance of the Oaklawn BC.

Among her wins were a victory over male rivals in the $150,000 DeBartolo Breeders' Cup at Remington Park and a three-length score over Group 1 winner Verruma in the $100,000 Estrapade at Arlington Park the day before the Breeders' Cup.

Following the Estrapade, Bien Nicole finished out her season with a third-place finish in the Grade 3 Cardinal Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 23. For her return, she has put together a series of strong workouts at Oaklawn.

Von Hemel, who wins at a 20 percent rate with horses returning from layoffs of 61 to 181 days, also has excellent stats with horses moving from turf to dirt - he hits at a 21 percent clip in that category.

And, his barn has been hot. Von Hemel won with 3 of 4 starters last Thursday, and over the last six racing days has gone 6 for 18.

That all bodes well for Bien Nicole, as does her front-running style, which should keep her from experiencing the dirt kickback that impedes some turf runners in main-track races.

"I don't think the kickback will bother her, but she's got enough speed that it looks like she'll be out of it anyway," said Von Hemel, who has given the mount to Don Pettinger.

Alke works bullet for Rebel

Alke, who finished second to Great Notion in the $75,000 Southwest Stakes, worked five furlongs in a bullet 59.80 seconds on Thursday in preparation for his next start, which will come in the $125,000 Rebel for 3-year-olds on March 22, trainer Bob Holthus said.

Alke is a half-brother to Oaklawn BC starter Red n'Gold, who is also trained by Holthus.

* The first race on Saturday features several nominees to the Oaklawn BC who have instead opted for a 1 1/16-mile allowance, which drew six, including See How She Runs, Eagle Lake, and McKinney.