03/26/2004 12:00AM

Ashland poses key test for Madcap Escapade

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Trainer Frank Brothers easily beat Madcap Escapade to Churchill Downs, having arrived nearly 48 hours before his latest star was flown Wednesday on a chartered jet from south Florida.

The fact that somebody finally beat Madcap Escapade is notable for one obvious reason: Nothing has even come close to the filly on the racetrack. Brothers has warmed up to the reality that Madcap Escapade is just one more eye-popper away from becoming the filly to beat in the April 30 Kentucky Oaks, and it was during a recent quiet spell at his Churchill barn that he briefly addressed how he will prepare her for the Ashland Stakes, the filly's final Oaks prep.

"I'm working her this weekend," said Brothers. "Normally I'd work her about 12 days after her last race, but with the ship involved, it'll be a couple days later."

Madcap Escapade, owned by Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford, was her sensational self in winning her last race, the Forward Gal on the March 13 Florida Derby undercard at Gulfstream Park. In all three career starts, Madcap Escapade has sped straight to the front and gone unchallenged the rest of the way.

The Grade 1 Ashland, which will be run for the 67th time next Saturday at Keeneland in Lexington, is shaping up as an ideal gauge for just how Madcap Escapade will fare against tougher company and with more distance. Halfbridled, the reigning divisional champion, is among her expected opposition in what is shaping up as a spectacular renewal of the 1 1/16-mile race.

Other 3-year-old fillies likely for the Ashland include Last Song, La Reina, and House of Fortune. Also considered possible is Ashado, who may wait instead in the April 9 Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn.

The Ashland is the cornerstone of the second of 15 programs scheduled for the Keeneland spring meet, which runs through April 23. The meet opens Friday with the $100,000 Transylvania Stakes for 3-year-old turf horses.

The highlight of the meet will come the following Saturday with the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes. A field of maybe seven or eight 3-year-olds may run, including divisional champion Action This Day, Birdstone, Limehouse, and Preachinatthebar.

In other stakes during the first half of the meet: Lady Tak, Emma Bovary, and Harmony Lodge are expected to clash in the seven-furlong Vinery Madison on April 7; turf standout Honor in War will make his second start of the year in the Maker's Mark Mile on April 9; and Congaree is the big name for the seven-furlong Commonwealth Breeders' Cup on the Blue Grass undercard.

* Keeneland will host its annual breakfast and post position draw for the April 10 Blue Grass on the Wednesday before the race, one day earlier than what has been traditional. The move is being made to more easily accommodate the dissemination of raceday information to the hundreds of simulcast outlets that will take the Big 3 Pick 3 wager. The Blue Grass once again is being linked with the Wood Memorial and Arkansas Derby in the Big 3 Pick 3, for which Aqueduct serves as the wagering hub.

Keeneland also announced that the post position draw for the Blue Grass will be held in the paddock and will be open to the public for the first time.

* Trackside Louisville is hosting a $10,000 handicapping contest Sunday. The entry fee is $45, and first prize is $6,000. Daily Racing Form is one of the sponsors, although this contest does not have any berths at stake in the DRF/NTRA National Handicapping Championship.

* Sunday marks the end of the first week that Trackside has ever had a competitor in the local area. A new offtrack parlor operated by Indiana Downs opened to modest fanfare Monday in Clarksville, Ind., just a few minutes across the Ohio River from downtown Louisville.

* Dr. Alex Harthill, the iconic veterinarian who still is a fixture on the Churchill backstretch even in semi-retirement, said he will have Carl Hanford as a houseguest in Louisville this week. Hanford, who lives in Wilmington, Del., trained Kelso to five straight Horse of the Year titles (1960-64). "We've been friends forever," said Harthill.