03/11/2008 12:00AM

Filly division looks wide-open

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When pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Futures Wager closed Saturday evening, stretch-running Pyro was the slight wagering favorite over undefeated War Pass, despite War Pass having defeated Pyro in their three meetings in 2007.

Almost lost in the attention given to this development, was the shake-up that took place among the leading 3-year-old fillies in Pool 2 of the Kentucky Oaks Future Wager. The shake-up was owed to Proud Spell's victory over previously undefeated Indian Blessing in the Fair Grounds Oaks, about 30 minutes before Pyro won the Louisiana Derby.

Proud Spell's victory went a long way towards balancing out Indian Blessing's two prior victories over her. It also reversed their respective positions in the Kentucky Oaks Future Wager

No longer was Indian Blessing the 4-1 Oaks favorite, closing at 8-1 in Pool 2. Meanwhile, Proud Spell dropped to 6-1, a close second choice to lukewarm favorite Country Star at 5-1. Country Star leads a relatively deep field of improving contenders in a division that could go through many changes between now and the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs on May 2.

Indeed, five individual fillies are now listed at single-digit odds. In addition to Country Star, Proud Spell and Indian Blessing, there are the undefeated Pure Clan and Proud Spell's improving stablemate Eight Belles, 13-length winner of the Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn.

In addition, it would be folly to overlook the emerging form displayed by Ariege in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks on Saturday.

A maiden winner in Ireland last summer, Ariege most recently had finished a tight second to Passion in a sprint stakes on the downhill Santa Anita turf course. That was a mere prelude to the way Ariege stretched out in distance and handled stiffer competition for Hall of Fame trainer Bobby Frankel, who has a strong winning history with such confident moves.

Rating patiently in seventh for jockey Corey Nakatani, Ariege launched a strong wide rally to roll past the consistent Golden Doc A in deep stretch.

Because she was not listed among the top 23 Kentucky Oaks candidates for Pool 2, Ariege added instant strength to option No. 24 ("all other fillies"), which closed at 9-1.

While this year's fillies may not include a horse to match Rags to Riches, historic winner of the 2007 Belmont Stakes, the 3-year-old filly division should not be confused with mediocrity. Some of this year's fillies rate very close to the majority of the leading Kentucky Derby types.

For instance, Country Star, trained by Bobby Frankel, ranks close to the best young male horses seen in 2007 or 2008, and it would not surprise to see this daughter of Empire Maker compete against males this season. In the meantime, the Kentucky Oaks is shaping up as a highly contentious race and seems a more realistic, more immediate target.

It also should be noted that there is a long series of good stakes for 3-year-old fillies that will not begin and end with the Kentucky Oaks.

Pimlico has the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes and New York has a series of Grade-1 races for 3 year old fillies that begins with the Acorn on Belmont Stakes Day, continues through the Mother Goose stakes on June 28, goes through the Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont on July 19, and points towards the prestigious Alabama stakes at Saratoga, Aug. 16.

Below are thumbnail sketches on the leading contenders who have surfaced so far for these graded stakes. They are listed in order of my personal preference at the Oaks distance of nine furlongs.

Country Star: A natural distance filly with a good finishing kick, she has shown strong form in all starts to date. Rafael Bejarano has ridden her perfectly. She might even belong in the Kentucky Derby should either War Pass and/or Pyro not make it to Louisville.

Proud Spell: She has delivered on her promise to improve with maturity and will be harder for Indian Blessing to beat at longer distances. Trainer Larry Jones is proving once again that he is a top-notch horseman.

Indian Blessing: This classy front-running type has had a hard series of races with considerable shipping involved. She might benefit from a respite but cannot be counted out for the Oaks. given her obvious zeal for racing.

Ariege: She overpowered Golden Doc A in the Santa Oaks and clearly has a future in Grade-1 route stakes on any surface.

Golden Doc A: A consistent sort, she won the Grade 1 Las Virgenes Stakes on Feb. 9 and held well for second to Ariege in the Santa Anita Oaks. She seems slightly below the top few in the division but also seems a reliable exotics contender, with a chance to win another Grade 1 on her very best day.

Pure Clan: She won all four races as a 2-year-old in 2007 - all at one mile or more - two on turf, two on the dirt at Churchill Downs. She has been gingerly handled to this point. Watch her carefully this weekend in the Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

Bsharpsonata: She has won four straight stakes, two on turf and two on dirt - including the Grade 2 Davona Dale at Gulfstream Park on March 2. She gets her talent and versatility from her classy breeding line that accents stamina from the sire and turf racing from the dam. She's by A.P. Indy's son Pulpit out of an Affirmed mare.

Eight Belles: A lightly raced and improving daughter of Unbridled's Song, she won an allowance race by 15 lengths at Fair Grounds before she won the Martha Washington at Oaklawn by 13. Another one expertly handled by trainer Larry Jones. She is expected to face Pure Clan this weekend at Oaklawn.

Final Fling: The Santa Yzabel winner for trainer Jeff Mullins, she made a good move before she weakened when she ran third to Ariege in the Santa Anita Oaks. She has not run a bad race in five career starts.

For horseplayers who are looking for a straightforward handicapping angle that takes into account the overall quality of this year's 3-year-old fillies, consider this reliable money-maker: Be on the lookout for fillies who gave hints of speed against any of the above leaders in the 3-year-old filly division. Such horses should be tough to handle when they are given class relief in less important stakes and allowance races throughout the country.