03/31/2009 11:00PM

Dream Empress needs turnaround


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Dream Empress is the puzzler of the Ashland Stakes. When fans sort through the past performances for the Grade 1 race Saturday at Keeneland, surely more than a few will pause over those of Dream Empress and say, "What the . . ."

Indeed, after making a case for being one of the best of her generation, Dream Empress has withdrawn herself from that category. Two poor races will do that to a horse. After a game maiden win, a runaway victory in the Grade 1 Alcibiades Stakes here last fall, and a closing runner-up finish behind divisional leader Stardom Bound in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, Dream Empress ended her 2-year-old season with a disappointing fourth in the Golden Rod Stakes on the main track at Churchill Downs.

Furthering that downward spiral was her only start at 3, when she beat just one opponent in a March 15 turf allowance at Gulfstream Park with Kent Desormeaux aboard.

"That turf race was supposed to set us up for the Ashland," said Ken McPeek, who trains Dream Empress for the Living the Dream Racing syndicate. "She trained really well before and after. The turf was really hard that day, and Kent said she wasn't comfortable. But that's just a minor excuse because you know she's better than that."

A replay of the Oct. 3 Alcibiades is sufficient to lend hope toward the 1 1/16-mile Ashland. Dream Empress was terrific that afternoon, and "obviously if she can run back to that and her Breeders' Cup," which also was run over a synthetic surface at Santa Anita, "then I think we'd have a good shot," said McPeek. "But she's got to get back to her old form."

Dream Empress is under consideration for the English Oaks on June 5, "but first she's got to earn a trip there by running well Saturday," said McPeek. And unlike most of her opposition, she will not proceed to the May 1 Kentucky Oaks, even with a big effort Saturday, he added.

Dream Empress is one of nine 3-year-old fillies entered in the 72nd running of the $400,000 Ashland. From the rail out, the field with riders is: Nan, Robby Albarado; What a Pear, Channing Hill; Third Dawn, Alan Garcia; Be Fair, Israel Ocampo; Gozzip Girl, Miguel Mena; Dream Empress, Desormeaux; Stardom Bound, Mike Smith; Hooh Why, Rene Douglas; and Boleyn, Jamie Theriot.

Augustin pair have spots picked out

Two gray standouts from the Augustin Stable powerhouse are expected to make encore appearances at this meet after distinguishing themselves here last fall.

Forever Together, who used the Grade 1 First Lady at Keeneland as a springboard to her victory in the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, is expected to run next Saturday in the Grade 2 Jenny Wiley, while Informed Decision, who set a course record in winning the Grade 2 Raven Run over the Keeneland Polytrack, will run Thursday in the Grade 1 Vinery Madison.

Forever Together, now 5, went to trainer Jonathan Sheppard's farm in Pennsylvania after the Breeders' Cup. She stayed in light training for most of her time there before being sent to Camden, S.C., where she breezed several times while gearing up for a 2009 campaign. After settling into Keeneland recently, the mare is ready to go, said Sheppard.

Informed Decision, now 4, followed a similar winter routine, ending with a couple of March breezes at Gulfstream Park, where Sheppard has been stabled in recent months.

Both horses breezed three furlongs here Wednesday.

The Jenny Wiley is one of three supporting stakes on the Blue Grass card. The Madison was upgraded from a Grade 2 in December.

Blue Grass field still up in the air

The field for the Blue Grass still needs some sorting out. While as many as 14 3-year-olds are under consideration, quite a few could defect in favor of a different race or, in the case of Hold Me Back, just train into the Kentucky Derby.

Likely starters include Charitable Man, Cliffy's Future, General Quarters, Mafaaz, Massone, Patena, Take the Points, and Unbridle's Dream. Giant Oak could run in the Blue Grass instead of the Illinois Derby this Saturday if it rains in Chicago. Flying Private and Ziegfeld have the Arkansas Derby as an option, while Terrain might run instead in the April 18 Lexington. Hello Broadway also is being mentioned as a possibility.

Ben Ali meet's only Sunday stakes

Because of quirks in the schedule, only one stakes race will be run on a Sunday throughout the spring meet, and that's the Grade 3 Ben Ali on April 19.

This first Sunday was left open after racing officials revised the order of races and dropped two stakes, including the Lafayette, which had been run on the first Sunday of the meet in recent years. The second Sunday is Easter, when the track will be dark.

The other stakes missing after an 11-year run is the Grade 1 Royal Chase for the Sport of Kings, a steeplechase.

Seeking Charles Town starters

Randy Wehrman, an expatriated Kentuckian who now serves as director of racing at Charles Town in West Virginia, will be on hand Friday and Saturday to take nominations for the rich series of races at Charles Town on April 18.

Charles Town, benefiting from alternative-gaming revenues, is offering five stakes that day, including the Charles Town Classic, which could be worth as much as $1 million, depending on the prior accomplishments of the starters.

Wehrman, who turns 50 on Sunday, was a longtime racing official at Keeneland and Turfway Park before being named to his current post in April 2008.

* Racing fans driving in from the west surely will notice the renovation of the medieval-style castle that had sat dormant for nearly 40 years on Versailles Road just a few miles from Keeneland. Castle Post, as it is called, is now a hotel and entertainment venue. More information is available at thecastlepost.com.

* Until its spring meet starts April 25, Churchill will host its simulcasting operations at the Trackside annex a few miles from the track in Louisville. The move has occurred in most previous years so that preparations for the meet and the Derby can be made without undue inconvenience to patrons.

* As if an excellent turnout would not occur anyway for opening day after the long winter, Friday also is College Scholarship Day. Keeneland and the Kentucky Thoroughbred Association will raffle off 10 college scholarships worth $1,000 apiece throughout the day. Several thousand students typically register for the drawing.