04/01/2004 12:00AM

Cream of crop gather for Ashland


LEXINGTON, Ky. - You can talk about it if you want. Mere words, however, might not do justice to what Keeneland has assembled Saturday for its 67th running of the Ashland Stakes.

"I don't know what anybody can say about it, really," said Carl Nafzger, who will run Last Song in the Grade 1, $500,000 Ashland. "It's just a fantastic race."

A rundown of the star-studded Ashland lineup has to start with Halfbridled, even though favoritism in the 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-old fillies seemingly is up for grabs between her and Madcap Escapade, the extraordinarily speedy filly who will put her unbeaten record on the line.

Halfbridled will be making her second start of the year after having earned an Eclipse championship at 2. She went 4 for 4 last year but will be trying to rebound from an upset loss in the Santa Anita Oaks three weeks ago. Bred and owned by Wertheimer Farm and trained by Richard Mandella, Halfbridled will have Alex Solis aboard when she starts from post 1 in the Ashland. Solis temporarily has the mount from Julie Krone, who remains sidelined with the lingering effects from sternum and rib injuries sustained in a December spill.

While the Ashland is crammed with talent, the filly creating the greatest buzz is Madcap Escapade, whose three sprint victories at Gulfstream Park this winter were spectacles to behold. Nonetheless, her trainer, Frank Brothers, is being extremely careful not to let people get too far ahead of themselves.

"You can talk all the talk you want, but she still has to walk the walk," said Brothers. "This is a big jump up, both in distance and class. She's going two turns for the first time, and it's a Grade 1 against arguably the best fillies in America. Well, not arguably. They probably are the best fillies."

Brothers said he is optimistic that Madcap Escapade, owned by Louisville businessman Bruce Lunsford, will handle the Ashland distance. "I do think she really has a good chance," he said. "If you look at her, she's got a little stretch to her and has a really nice stride. She has all the pedigree and all the tools. It's probably going to come down to what's between her ears. If she's willing to rate kindly enough, which I think she will, then she should be all right."

Like every trainer in the Ashland, Brothers would proceed to the April 30 Kentucky Oaks if his filly runs well. "There's not a lot to lose in our situation," he said. "If this doesn't work, we've got a really good sprinter. If it does, that's great."

Besides Halfbridled and Madcap Escapade, the Ashland also has drawn three other accomplished fillies: Ashado, La Reina, and Last Song.

Ashado, trained by Todd Pletcher, has won 5 of 7 starts, with one of her defeats resulting in a runner-up finish behind Halfbridled last fall in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Ashado was particularly sharp in winning the Fair Grounds Oaks four weeks ago.

La Reina, trained by Shug McGaughey, will be making just her second start since being beaten a nose by Ashado in a memorable running of the Demoiselle in November. By A.P. Indy out of Queena, La Reina has a pedigree that strongly suggests she could be a major factor within the 3-year-old filly division as the distances get longer.

Last Song has won 3 of her last 4 starts, including a two-length triumph in the Bonnie Miss at Gulfstream four weeks ago. Nafzger has been delighted with the way Last Song has trained since that win.

The Ashland, which dates to 1936, will be televised live on Television Games Network as the ninth of 10 Saturday races. First post is 1:15 p.m. Eastern, with the Ashland set for 5:15 p.m.