01/27/2006 12:00AM

Ashado leaves racing, fittingly, as champion

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Ashado was a truly rare runner, one who excelled at the top levels of the sport at ages 2, 3, and 4. After winning her debut in June 2003 at Belmont Park, she ran in graded stakes races for the rest of her 21-race career, capturing 11 of them, including seven Grade 1 races, among them the 2004 Breeders' Cup Distaff at Lone Star Park. She earned $3,931,440, second on the all-time list among females to Azeri's $4,079,820. And with her coronation as the Eclipse Award-winning older filly or mare of 2005, Ashado became the first filly since Life's Magic in 1984-85 to win a championship at age 3 and repeat at 4.

Last year, ran in six Grade 1 races and won three of them. Her year began with a fifth-place finish in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park, and then she was upset as the odds-on favorite in the Pimlico Breeders' Cup Distaff Handicap. There was growing concern that Ashado had lost a step from 2004, but her trainer, Todd Pletcher, warned doubters that Ashado was rounding into form.

Back home in New York, Ashado proved Pletcher correct. In June, Ashado beat longtime nemesis Society Selection in the Ogden Phipps Handicap at Belmont Park, then scored a runaway victory in the Go for Wand Handicap at Saratoga.

At the end of Saratoga's meet, Ashado threw in what seemed to be an inexplicably poor performance in the Personal Ensign Handicap, losing by more than 14 lengths; never before had she lost a race by more than four lengths. Something was wrong. Pletcher found it. Ashado emerged from the Personal Ensign with a foot bruise, and once that healed, she returned to her top form.

The Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park lured an outstanding field, including Society Selection, Ballerina winner Happy Ticket, and California invader Dream of Summer. Ashado was tested severely by Happy Ticket in a prolonged stretch drive, but she gamely held on by a half-length.

Ashado was favored when defending her Breeders' Cup Distaff title on Oct. 29 at Belmont Park. But she could only manage to finish third, behind longshot winner Pleasant Home - who finished second in Eclipse Award voting to Ashado - and longtime shadow Society Selection.

That was the final race of Ashado's career, and though she came up just short of reaching Azeri's earnings record, Ashado soon set a record of her own.

Ashado, a daughter of Saint Ballado out of the Mari's Book mare Goulash, was bred by Aaron and Marie Jones and was sold as a yearling for $170,000 to Jack and Laurie Wolf's Starlight Stable, Paul Saylor, and Johns Martin. She returned to the auction ring at Keeneland last November and was sold as a broodmare prospect for $9 million, a record price for a mare at auction.

Her owners weren't the only ones to ride Ashado's coattails to riches. Both Pletcher, who trained Ashado throughout her career, and jockey John Velazquez, who rode Ashado in 16 of her races, including all her 2005 starts, captured Eclipse Awards themselves for 2005.