08/23/2005 11:00PM

Ashado looks tough as ever

Trainer Todd Pletcher leads Ashado, last year's champion 3-year-old filly, to the main track at Saratoga earlier this week to train.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - It took a little time to shake off the cobwebs following her Eclipse Award-winning 3-year-old campaign. But the reigning Breeders' Cup Distaff champion is again hitting on all cylinders, and in her present form stands out over the six other fillies and mares she will face in Friday's $400,000 Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga.

Ashado dropped her first two starts this season as the odds-on favorite in both the Apple Blossom and Pimlico Breeders' Cup Distaff handicaps. But she rebounded with an easy three-length win over Society Selection in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps Handicap at Belmont on June 18, then returned five weeks later to register an even more impressive 9 1/2-length victory against four overmatched rivals in the Grade 1 Go for Wand Handicap here.

"She sure looks like her old self off those last two races, and on paper she certainly appears to be the most accomplished filly in this race," trainer Todd Pletcher said shortly before entries were drawn for the Grade 1 Personal Ensign on Wednesday. "I just hope she runs Friday the way she did the last couple of times. That should make her pretty tough to beat."

Pletcher said his only concern for Ashado in the 1 1/4-mile Personal Ensign would be some form of a wet track.

"I don't think she totally dislikes an off track, but there are some she cares for less than others," said Pletcher. "She definitely seems to like them harder than a drying-out mud, which was the case here last summer for the Alabama or earlier this year at Pimlico."

Friday's weather forecast calls for only a 20 percent chance of rain.

Ashado will carry 122 pounds, including regular rider John Velazquez, under the allowance conditions of the Personal Ensign. Pletcher also entered Isola Piu Bella, who will race uncoupled in the wagering with Ashado. The rest of the field is A Song in A Minor, Island Sand, Personal Legend, Shadow Cast, and Two Trail Sioux.

A Song in A Minor is also entered in Thursday's seventh race at Saratoga.

Island Sand may be a distant second choice in the Personal Ensign. A 4-year-old daughter of Tabasco Cat, Island Sand easily defeated Two Trail Sioux, Personal Legend, and Isola Piu Bella when registering a 3 3/4-length victory in the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap on July 17. The win came in Island Sand's first start at 1 1/4 miles and earned her a career-best 105 Beyer Speed Figure.

"She's coming into the race real good, and I know she can get the mile and one-quarter," said Larry Jones, who trains Island Sand for the B.A. Man Inc. stable. "Obviously Ashado is a No. 1 mare, and we're going to have to go out and do our best and also hope we get a weak link in her chain. But with the right trip on the right day, I think we can beat her."

Two Trail Sioux set the pace into the stretch in Delaware before proving no match for Island Sand, and will be the likely pacesetter once again in the Personal Ensign. Two Trail Sioux used similar front-running tactics to capture the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs on June 18.

Personal Legend encountered trouble in the Delaware before rallying to finish third, nearly seven lengths behind Island Sand. The outing was her first since a fourth-place finish behind Shadow Cast in the Grade 2 Louisville Breeders' Cup Handicap 10 weeks earlier.

"I thought my filly ran well in Delaware," said trainer Bobby Frankel. "She was shuffled back to last at one point, then came running at the end. Ashado ran a great race the other day and will be tough to beat, but you never duck one horse. Even if my filly can't beat her, it would be a feather in her cap if she could finish second or third in a Grade 1 race."