It's been a long wait for trainer Ben Cecil, but he's oozing confidence over the upcoming 2003 debut of his Eclipse-winning race mare Golden Apples. She begins her 5-year-old season Saturday at Del Mar in the grade I, $400,000 John C. Mabee Handicap.She'll face five foes in the 1 1/8-mile test on the Jimmy Durante Turf Course.Chief contenders against Golden Apples, who won the Del Mar Oaks in 2001 and finished second in last year's running of the former Ramona Handicap, will be the 2002 Del Mar Oaks winner Dublino, who has a win and two seconds this year, and Tates Creek, who is on a four-race win streak. Dublino is owned by the partnership of Robert Geringer, Michael Klein, Marsha Naify's Liberty Road Stables and Emmanuel and Laura de Seroux's San Gabriel Investments and trained by Laura de Seroux. Tates Creek is owned by Prince Khalid Abdullah's Juddmonte Farms.Despite the records of that pair, Cecil is confident that the bay mare owned by Gary Tanaka will acquit herself well. "She's doing very well right now," Cecil said Thursday morning. "I'm very pleased with her."He's not troubled by the fact it's her first start of the year, pointing out that the time off was necessary. "We took a chip out of each ankle in December last year and gave her all the time she needed before coming back. She went to Michelle Nakatani's farm for layups in Bradbury [near Santa Anita]. That's where I always send her when she needs time off. "
So what's she doing that gives him that kind of confidence? "It's just the way she's training. I think she's sounder. I wonder if those chips weren't in there for quite awhile without us really knowing about it. She's happy, she's very sound, she's fresh. I think she'll run very well.
"It's been a long wait to get her back to the races, and finally it's here and it's all gone so smoothly for her."
Cecil blamed last year's runner-up finish in the Mabee on the fact she had been sick prior to the race "and wasn't doing all that well."
For the first time, Golden Apples will have Gary Stevens in the irons, taking over from regular rider Patrick Valenzuela, who opted to ride Tates Creek for the third straight time. "I don't think, necessarily, that he [Valenzuela] thinks Tates Creek is a better filly or that he wants to stay with the [Robert] Frankel barn."The field, with weights and riders:
1--Tates Creek, 123, Patrick Valenzuela
2--Dublino, 121, Kent Desormeaux
3--Megahertz, 116, Alex Solis
4--Voz de Colegiala, 114, Julie Krone
5--Golden Apples, 122, Gary Stevens
6--Magic Mission, 115, Victor Espinoza