04/05/2005 12:00AM

Championship race begins now

Ashado closes out her championship year with a victory in the 2004 Breeders' Cup Distaff. Her trainer, Todd Pletcher, opted to give her an extended break from racing and says the filly has responded well.

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff brings together the best fillies and mares from around the country each fall, and in the spring, the same can be said of the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park.

"History speaks for itself," said Ron McAnally, who has won a record three Apple Blossoms and this year will start House of Fortune. "It's one of the best filly and mare races in the country."

McAnally first won the Apple Blossom in 1989 with Bayakoa, later voted champion, and in 1992 and 1993, he won it with Paseana, who each year earned an Eclipse Award. The last three years, the Apple Blossom has been won by Azeri, the retired 2002 Horse of the Year.

Saturday's running will match the reigning champion 3-year-old filly, Ashado, against Island Fashion, possibly the best mare in the West. Others pointing for the 1 1/16-mile race include Dream of Summer, Star Parade, Island Sand, and Shadow Cast.

Ashado was voted her Eclipse Award last year following a powerful campaign that included victories in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks and the Grade 1 Coaching Club of America Oaks. Ashado closed out her year with a win the Breeders' Cup Distaff, her first start against older rivals, and has thrived since then, according to her trainer, Todd Pletcher.

"She's done extremely well," Pletcher said. "I think we accomplished what we wanted to, not running until April. We put weight back on her. She's getting physically stronger and wider and she looks really well."

Pletcher has mapped out a campaign for Ashado this year that includes the Grade 2, $300,000 Louisville Breeders' Cup at Churchill on May 6; the Grade 1, $300,000 Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park on June 18; the Grade 1, $750,000 Beldame at Belmont on Oct. 1; and the Breeders' Cup Distaff, which will be run on Oct. 29 at Belmont Park.

The Distaff is also the year-end goal for Island Fashion, whose road there could include the Grade 1, $350,000 Gamely Breeders' Cup Handicap at Hollywood Park in May, according to Marcelo Polanco, her trainer.

Island Fashion has been one of the top females in the country since her 3-year-old season in 2003, when she won the Grade 1 Alabama at Saratoga and the Grade 1 La Brea at Santa Anita. She reinforced her quality last year by winning the Grade 1 Santa Monica and finishing second to males in the Santa Anita Handicap.

Island Fashion faced Ashado for the first time in the Breeders' Cup, finishing fifth on a track rated good.

"She had an outside post, and there was rain the day before," said Polanco. "The outside was not a very good place to be. We were forced to move a little bit before our time because we were five wide."

Island Fashion has made three starts since, finishing fourth in the Grade 1 Matriarch on turf, second in the Grade 1 Santa Monica, and ninth against males in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap in her last start March 5.

Turning the tables on Ashado Saturday would be just what Island Fashion needs to kick-start her season. It's the reason she has come to the Apple Blossom