04/29/2004 11:00PM

Ashado alone at the top

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On a muddy main track at Churchill Downs, Ashado and John Velazquez drive to a 1 1/4-length victory over Island Sand in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Ashado always had been waiting for the right opportunity to assume the leadership of her division, having won a few notable stakes and run respectably in defeat in several key races.

Friday at Churchill Downs, Ashado became the unquestioned leader of her class. Getting a perfect trip under John Velazquez, Ashado drew clear from front-running Madcap Escapade, then held off a late run by longshot Island Sand to win the 130th running of the $572,000 Kentucky Oaks, North America's premier event for 3-year-old fillies.

Ashado, owned by Jack Wolf, Paul Saylor, and Johns Martin, returned $6.60 to win as the 2-1 favorite in a field of 11. Island Sand finished 1 1/4 lengths behind Ashado and 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Madcap Escapade, while Victory U.S.A. was another 1 1/4 lengths back in fourth.

With 98,445 watching in overcast and humid conditions, and over a track left muddy by heavy morning rain, Madcap Escapade immediately shot to a clear lead under Jerry Bailey, while Ashado, having gotten away cleanly from post 1, followed closest as the field straightened down the backstretch.

"She broke so well," said Velazquez. "I had such a good spot, I thought, 'Let me just get a distance that she's not too far in front and I don't have to use my horse too much.' "

That strategy worked to perfection. Ashado began gaining steadily entering the far turn, and by the furlong pole she was even with Madcap Escapade, who had set fractions of 23.29 seconds, 46, and 1:09.99 for the first six furlongs. Down the stretch, only Island Sand, a 16-1 shot under Terry Thompson, had a chance to catch Ashado, but that wasn't about to happen.

"She's such a good filly," said Todd Pletcher, the winning trainer. "She just gave us all she had again."

The victory not only was the first in the Oaks for Velazquez and Pletcher, but also the greatest victory for a duo that has become easily the dominant trainer-jockey team on the East Coast. "Johnny's my man," Pletcher said.

Ashado, a Saint Ballado filly, was bred in Kentucky by Aaron and Marie Jones. From eight previous starts, Ashado had five wins, including four graded stakes, but she was beaten in three showcase Grade 1 events: the Frizette, Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, and Ashland. She earned $354,640 Friday to lift her bankroll to $1,245,440.

After Victory U. S. A., the order of finish was Hollywood Story, A.P. Adventure, Stellar Jayne, House of Fortune, Last Song, Silent Sighs, and Class Above. Halfbridled was an early scratch.

Larry Jones, trainer of Island Sand, was thrilled with his filly finishing second. "This was just as big as if we'd won," said Jones.

Frank Brothers, trainer of previously unbeaten Madcap Escapade, said his filly "ran as hard as she could for as long as she could. I wouldn't have written the script any different other than she didn't win."

Ashado ended a $2 pick four that returned $3,120.80. Churchill had guaranteed a pool of $500,000, but only $333,278 was wagered, meaning the track had to make up the balance.

Exotic payoffs for $2 wagers were $126.60 on the 1-3 exacta; $492.80 for the 1-3-6 trifecta; and $3,824.80 for the 1-3-6-8 superfecta.