04/03/2006 11:00PM

Ashland tops opening weekend

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Trainer David Hofmans was at Keeneland early Tuesday to supervise a routine gallop by Balance, the standout 3-year-old filly who figures as a heavy favorite Saturday in the $500,000 Ashland Stakes, the Grade 1 race that anchors the opening three-day weekend of the 15-day Keeneland spring meet.

Balance, owned by Amerman Racing, arrived last Thursday from her Southern California base and was scheduled to breeze "maybe five-eighths" of a mile Wednesday, said Hofmans, who arrived Monday.

"She came out of her last race so strong and so happy that we felt it was a natural progression to come here for the Ashland," said Hofmans. "She's tough to hold on the ground. She's only run twice this year, and we felt we really needed to run her again before the Kentucky Oaks."

The Ashland, a critical prep for the May 5 Oaks, is the middle of three stakes, all for 3-year-olds, set for opening weekend. The $150,000 Transylvania Stakes, for turf horses, highlights the Friday opener, and the $100,000 Lafayette Stakes, for sprinters, is the Sunday feature.

Balance, with Victor Espinoza to ride, is one of at least seven fillies likely for the 1 1/16-mile Ashland. The others expected are Bushfire, Itty Bitty Pretty, Performing Diva, Saratoga Drive, Sweet Sugaree, and Wait a While.

The Transylvania, run at a mile on grass, is shaping up with the maximum of 10 starters, including To Sender, winner of the Pasadena Stakes for trainer Bobby Frankel, and Up an Octave, a narrowly beaten second in the Palm Beach Stakes for trainer Todd Pletcher.

Pletcher, the leading trainer here last spring, heads an impressive roster that also includes Frankel, Steve Asmussen, Dale Romans, D. Wayne Lukas, Nick Zito, and many other top trainers.

The jockey colony will be equally strong, with John Velazquez, Edgar Prado, Rafael Bejarano, Robby Albarado, Mark Guidry, and Rene Douglas among those riding on a daily basis.

The meet highlight comes April 15 with the $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes, a key prep for the May 6 Kentucky Derby.

The spring meet most likely will be the last one for the Keeneland dirt course. The track's board of directors is scheduled to meet April 19, when final approval of the installation of a Polytrack synthetic surface is widely expected. The new Polytrack surface would replace the dirt track in time for the fall meet in October.