05/01/2006 11:00PM

Bushfire out to prove herself

Trainer David Hofmans says Balance (above) did not run her race when she was third, nearly 11 lengths behind Bushfire, in the Ashland.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Bushfire won the April 8 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland by 6 1/2 lengths, but even if she had won by 36 1/2, Eddie Kenneally knows the filly would still have her skeptics.

"Certainly Keeneland makes some horses look very good," said Kenneally, who trains Bushfire, one of the main players in a field of 14 fillies drawn Tuesday for the 132nd Kentucky Oaks on Friday at Churchill Downs.

Clearly, Kenneally would love to see Bushfire dispel the widely held handicapping maxim that when a horse wins big at Keeneland, that horse becomes a good play-against in her next start, based on the belief that the horse isn't actually as good as she looked. And after romping in wire-to-wire fashion at 15-1 over a speed-favoring Keeneland main track, Bushfire has become perhaps the biggest variable in a difficult Oaks equation.

"I still think we're in a good spot," said Kenneally. "My filly trained here at Churchill as a 2-year-old, and she broke her maiden here last fall going two turns. She has an advantage in that way because a lot of the other fillies haven't trained here for very long. It's not like my filly only likes Keeneland."

Bushfire, owned by the Homewrecker Stable of Ron and Ricki Rashinski, drew post 10 in the Grade 1 Oaks. With Cornelio Velasquez to ride again, she figures to be sent away the second or third wagering choice, behind favored Balance, in the 1 1/8-mile filly classic.

Balance never even came close to catching Bushfire in the Ashland, but even Kenneally concedes that Balance probably was unable to handle the Keeneland surface when she finished third by nearly 11 lengths as the 1-2 favorite.

"You still have to consider Balance the class of the race and the horse to beat," he said.

Balance, with Victor Espinoza riding for trainer David Hofmans, drew post 4. Based in Southern California, Balance had built quite a resume coming into the Ashland, having won back-to-back Grade 1 races at Santa Anita, the Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks, to assume leadership of the 3-year-old filly division.

Hofmans, who trains Balance for Amerman Racing Stables, has said repeatedly that Balance did not run her race in the Ashland and that he expects her to return to top form in the Oaks.

Other major contenders for the Oaks, the centerpiece of a Derby Eve card that typically draws more than 100,000 ontrack fans, include Diplomat Lady (post 2), a 2 1/4-length winner of the Grade 2 Beaumont Stakes at Keeneland, and Wait a While (post 8), the Ashland runner-up, who is trained by Todd Pletcher.

Diplomat Lady, trained by Chris Paasch, was the last Oaks filly to tune up for the race when she breezed an easy half-mile Monday in 51.20 seconds at Churchill. Diplomat Lady upset Balance in the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet in December before finishing behind her in the Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks.

If all 14 start, the total purse will be $685,900.

The Oaks is the leadoff race in the Oaks-Derby double, the two-day wager that was first offered in 1996.

The field

Kentucky Oaks
Purse: $500,000, 1 1/8 miles, Grade 1

1Miss NormanP. Morales20-1
2Diplomat LadyA. Solis10-1
3Quiet KimK. Desormeaux12-1
4BalanceV. Espinoza2-1
5Red Cherries SpinC. Nakatani50-1
6Ex CaelisJ. Leparoux20-1
7Wonder Lady Anne LE. Prado8-1
8Wait A WhileG. Gomez5-1
9Itty Bitty PrettyP. Valenzuela12-1
10BushfireC. Velasquez5-1
11Top Notch LadyP. Husbands20-1
12ErmineR. Albarado12-1
13Last RomanceR. Bejarano15-1
14Lemons ForeverM. Guidry20-1

* All starters carry 121 pounds
* Track odds
* Television: Friday; 5-6 p.m. Eastern; ESPN