03/30/2004 1:00AM

Fast start with Ashland


LEXINGTON, Ky. - The Lane's End Stakes at Turfway Park is a harbinger every March that big-time racing is just around the corner in Kentucky.

On Friday, when the 15-day spring meet at Keeneland begins, the corner will have been turned. And to drive home the point that a great concentration of racing power has reassembled in Kentucky, the 67th running of the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes on Saturday might just be the best ever.

Three of the top 3-year-old fillies in the United States are set to run in it: Halfbridled, Madcap Escapade, and Ashado. Add in La Reina and Last Song, and the $500,000 Ashland has the making of a bonafide blockbuster.

"We're all excited about how the Ashland is shaping up," said Keeneland racing secretary Ben Huffman, who recently returned to Lexington after serving in the same capacity at Fair Grounds. "You're going to see a lot of superstars coming through here. Our stakes and allowance program should be outstanding from the very start."

Halfbridled, who will be ridden by Alex Solis in the 1 1/16-mile Ashland, was scheduled to arrive Wednesday from Southern California. The other fillies already have settled in at Keeneland or Churchill Downs.

The meet-opening card Friday features the $100,000 Transylvania Stakes. Although the one-mile turf race is expected to attract several promising 3-year-olds, including Grand Heritage and Exploited Storm, the role of favorite will go to Timo, a two-time stakes winner who will make his first start in more than three months.

"He's been training extremely well since we brought him back after a little time off," said trainer Bill Badgett.

The last stakes of the opening weekend is the $100,000 Lafayette on Sunday. A pair of Indian Charlie 3-year-olds, Bwana Charlie and Redskin Warrior, look like logical favorites in that seven-furlong race.

The traditional meet highlight, the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on April 10, anchors the first full week of the meet, which starts with the Vinery Madison for older fillies and mares on April 7. The Vinery also will have a star-studded cast, with Buffythecenterfold, Ema Bovary, Harmony Lodge, Lady Tak, and Yell all expected to run.

The April 9 feature, the Maker's Mark Mile, could offer a rematch of Perfect Soul and Honor in War, the one-two finishers here last fall in the Shadwell Mile. Then comes the Blue Grass, with Lion Heart expected to head a field of eight or nine. Also on the Blue Grass card, Congaree and Wando are expected to meet in the Commonwealth Breeders' Cup.

At least one stakes will be run every day through the end of the meet on April 23.