04/25/2002 12:00AM

First Again is star of NJC Oaks field


CHICAGO - With the Fantasy Stakes, Ashland Stakes, and the Kentucky Oaks all sandwiched into a month, Midwest horsemen with a top 3-year-old filly have no trouble picking spots. So with no grade and a $100,000 purse, Saturday's National Jockey Club Oaks can't compete for the top talent, and accordingly, the race has come up with an ordinary, allowance-caliber field.

There might, however, be one exception to that categorization. Since she finished fourth, beaten 9 1/4 lengths, behind Take Charge Lady, Take the Cake and Belterra in the Grade 1 Ashland at Keeneland, First Again will be judged the class of the local Oaks, and indeed, if she repeats her recent effort in Kentucky, she should beat her six opponents Saturday.

From the rail out, those rivals are maiden winner Our Chequer Flag; the off-form Elementary; first-level allowance winner Summer Delight; pace factor Emeraldforajudge; Persimmon Ridge, 2 for 10 in her career; and, on the far outside, the Illinois-bred, Gracility.

With Mark Guidry coming into ride First Again for the nationally prominent Elliott Walden stable, the filly's odds could plummet below a reasonable range. Her effort in the Ashland was the best race turned in by any NJC Oaks entrant, but there are no other such performances among her six other starts. It would be premature to assume First Again will produce her Ashland race every time she runs.

WinStar Farms bought First Again last fall after she finished third in the Arlington-Washington Lassie, and the filly immediately won a $100,000 stakes at Delaware. But she was ninth, beaten more than 20 lengths in her first start this year, the OBS Championship Stakes, though a grim outside draw hurt her that day, and Walden might have been setting her up for the Ashland. Still, questions of quality drift around First Again.

Those would be easier to take if she had the early speed that can be so effective at this track, but she does not. "She's not a speed horse," Walden said. "She'll be somewhere in the middle of the pack."

Maybe. Emeraldforajudge broke badly in her last start, a fifth-place finish in the Valdale at Turfway, but with an alert break, this is the filly with the potential to dictate pace in the Oaks. She ran third behind the talented pair of Lake Lady and Charmed Gift in her first start this season, the Tiffany Lass at Fair Grounds, and any improvement would make her dangerous.

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