04/30/2003 11:00PM

Elloluv favored in tough Oaks


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Friday before the Kentucky Derby has become known as "Louisville's Day at the Races," but in reality, it's a day horseplayers everywhere can appreciate.

A race as competitive as the 129th Kentucky Oaks serves as Exhibit A in regard to why some 100,000 fans - not to mention hundreds of thousands more watching via simulcast or on ESPN2 - will be riveted on Friday's events at Churchill Downs.

Elloluv, a speedy California-based filly who made a terrific first impression in Kentucky by winning the recent Ashland Stakes at Keeneland, figures as a lukewarm favorite in the Oaks, but any of a handful of rivals are worthy of major consideration in this 3-year-old filly classic.

Elloluv, trained by Craig Dollase and owned by J. Paul Reddam, will be ridden by Robby Albarado when she breaks from the rail in the 1 1/8-mile, Grade 1 Oaks.

"I'm going," said Albarado, meaning he intends to send his mount directly into contention. "From the 1-hole, you kidding? I've got to get good position. I will sit off the lead if somebody else is going too quick, but we'll be right up there. I think my filly's got the best chance."

Lady Tak, the filly that Elloluv defeated in the April 5 Ashland, probably will be no worse than second choice in the betting, especially with Jerry Bailey riding her for the first time. Lady Tak won the first five starts of her career before finishing second by 3 1/4 lengths in the Ashland.

"We weren't disappointed by the Ashland, not at all," said Bill Heiligbrodt, owner of Lady Tak. "I mean, there are something like 17,000 Thoroughbred fillies registered every year, and here we are, one of the favorites for the Kentucky Oaks. I feel like we're lucky to be here."

Among the other fillies who figure to draw solid play are My Boston Gal, who regained some lost luster by winning the Stonerside Beaumont Stakes last month at Keeneland, and the uncoupled Bob Baffert-trained pair of Santa Catarina and Atlantic Ocean.

Carl Nafzger, trainer of My Boston Gal, echoes the sentiments of many handicappers, calling the Oaks "one heck of a horse race." He said My Boston Gal "has as good a chance as any if she runs her race. Obviously she ran real big at Keeneland, so we're hoping to move forward off that."

Baffert said he regards both of his fillies as serious contenders. "They're both training great," he said.

Like Baffert, trainer Nick Zito has two uncoupled starters in the Oaks - Bird Town and Holiday Lady. Both are entered following creditable races at Keeneland, and both figure among the middle wagering choices.

Among the Oaks longshots, maybe Island Fashion, to be ridden by Pat Valenzuela, rates the best chance despite drawing the far outside post in the field of 12.

"I'm not crazy about the post, but we've got P. Val, which is always good," trainer Nick Canani said. "They've got her 30-1 on the morning line and 20-1 in the Form, but I think she's better than that. Maybe I'm biased because I think so much of her. The good thing is, horses can't read morning lines."

The rest of the Oaks field includes Yell, a distant fourth in the Ashland; Go for Glamour, the lone holdover from the Fantasy Stakes; and two locally based fillies, Tempus Fugit and In Case of Wind.

If all 12 start in the Oaks, the total purse will be $573,800, with $355,736 to the winner.

The Oaks is the opening half of the Oaks-Derby double, the two-day wager that Churchill first offered in 1996. Plenty of action is likely on the Dollase family double: Craig has Elloluv for the Oaks, and his father, Wally, has Ten Most Wanted, the likely second choice in the Derby.

Baffert, with Indian Express in the Derby, is the only trainer with starters in both races.

Live television coverage of the Oaks will be provided by ESPN2 on a one-hour show that begins at 5 p.m. Eastern. The Oaks is carded as the 10th of 11 Friday races, with post time set for 5:43 p.m. Four other stakes races are part of a sensational undercard.

The weather forecast for Friday calls for a chance of thundershowers and a high of 74 degrees.