05/14/2003 11:00PM

Weather may play big role in Dixie

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BALTIMORE - The trainers of the top contenders in Saturday's $200,000 Citgo Dixie Stakes at Pimlico Race Course will be paying as much attention to the weather as to their competition.

Blue Steller, Del Mar Show, and Sarafan all perform better on firm turf, making their status questionable for the Grade 2 turf race. And even if they run, they could be compromised by the conditions, since the National Weather Service on Thursday predicted a strong storm to hit this area on Friday.

Del Mar Show finished second in the 1 1/8-mile Dixie last year, and heads into this year's race off a fine 2003 debut victory in a classified allowance race at Keeneland on April 19. He also has tactical speed in a race whose entrants generally lack that quality. If he goes, he is the one to catch, if not beat.

But what if it rains?

"It won't make me happy," said Bill Mott, the trainer of Del Mar Show, who said he had nominated Del Mar Show to stakes races at Monmouth Park and Woodbine as a back-up.

"He tires a little easier on soft turf," Mott said.

Del Mar Show has won 10 times in 20 starts, and owns three wins in his last five starts. In last year's Dixie, he pressed the pace on a yielding course before settling for second behind Strut the Stage.

Sarafan has traveled far and wide in search of the firm ground he desires. Last year, he raced at Fair Grounds, Bay Meadows, Hollywood Park, Monmouth, Del Mar, Arlington Park, Santa Anita, and in Japan and Hong Kong. The Dixie is his first scheduled start of the year, but his trainer, Neil Drysdale, was concerned the ground would not be suitable.

Sarafan is the most accomplished horse in the field. He won in top-class fields in the Explosive Bid and Eddie Read handicaps last year, and lost narrow photo finishes in both the Arlington Million and the Japan Cup. In his last start, the Hong Kong Cup, he finished furiously to be beaten less than one length after being taken far back off a ludicrously slow pace.

Blue Steller has not raced since winning an optional-claiming race at Santa Anita in March. The prospect of a wet turf course had trainer Bobby Frankel wondering if he should even put Blue Steller on a van and send him to Pimlico from Belmont Park, where he has been based for the past week.

Blue Steller was third, just behind runner-up Sarafan, in the Hirsch Memorial at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting last October.

Perfect Soul comes off a five-length victory in a third-level allowance field at Keeneland on April 13.

- additional reporting by David Grening