04/02/2008 11:00PM

Country Star is right on schedule

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LEXINGTON, Ky. – When Stonerside Stable and trainer Bobby Frankel decided to withhold Country Star from the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies last fall, it was with one primary thought in mind.

“We wanted her for a 3-year-old,” said Frankel.

So while Indian Blessing dominated the Juvenile Fillies, Country Star preceded her with a victory in one Grade 1 race, the Alcibiades at Keeneland, and eventually followed with another, the Starlet at Hollywood. Since then, a lot of water has passed under the proverbial bridge, and my how things have changed: Indian Blessing has been withdrawn from consideration for the May 3 Kentucky Oaks, while Country Star could become the Oaks favorite with a big effort Saturday when she makes her seasonal debut in the Grade 1, $500,000 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland.

Frankel, it seems, is on the verge of getting what he wanted.

“My filly had just made her first start 2 1/2 weeks before she won the Alcibiades, so I didn’t want to rush her back again in three weeks,” said Frankel. “After the Starlet, we looked ahead to the Las Virgenes and Santa Anita Oaks, but she had a temperature for a few days and I just backed off her before the Las Virgenes. Maybe it’s all been a blessing in disguise because I ended up winning the Santa Anita Oaks anyway,” with Ariege, “and now we’re here at Keeneland with another really nice filly for the Ashland.”

Bred and owned by Bob McNair’s Stonerside, Country Star will start from post 6 in a field of seven 3-year-old fillies in the 71st running of the 1?1/16-mile Ashland, which is being run for the second time on Polytrack. Proud Spell, winner of the March 8 Fair Grounds Oaks over Indian Blessing in her last start, figures to challenge Country Star for favoritism.

Robby Albarado is substituting aboard Country Star for Rafael Bejarano, who has been injured but will have the mount back for the Oaks, said Frankel, if in fact the filly makes it. Bejarano rode Country Star in all three of her starts: a runner-up finish in a Sept. 20 maiden turf race at Belmont Park, followed by the Oct. 5 Alcibiades and the Dec.?15 Starlet over Cushion Track at Hollywood.

Frankel has trained two Oaks winners, Keeper Hill (1998) and Flute (2001), and he doesn’t mind taking a peek ahead to the next running. He said that although Country Star has never raced on dirt, “she has a good style for any track. I’m not really worried about that. I know it’s uncharted territory, but she has the pedigree” – Country Star is by Empire Maker out of the 2000 Ashland winner, Rings a Chime – “and the style to handle anything.”

Conversely, Proud Spell has never raced on anything but dirt. Her trainer, Larry Jones, has said he is unconcerned about her making a switch Saturday to Polytrack. For a confidence booster, Jones recently won the Bourbonette Oaks on the Turfway Park Polytrack with Maren’s Meadow, a 3-year-old filly with no previous synthetic-track experience.

Gabriel Saez once again will be aboard Proud Spell when she breaks just inside of Country Star from post?5. Bred and owned by former Kentucky Gov. Brereton C. Jones, Proud Spell also has a sparkling record, having posted 4 wins and 2 seconds in 6 career starts. She, too, is in line to be the Oaks favorite with a rousing effort Saturday.

The five fillies trying to upset the formidable favorites are Absolutely Cindy, Little Belle, African Violet, Bsharpsonata, and Life Is Sweet.

The Ashland, which dates to 1936, long has been a key Oaks prep, although the last filly to win both races was Silverbulletday in 1999. The 2007 winner, Christmas Kid, bypassed the Oaks.