08/09/2001 12:00AM

Gardenia offers test of Asher's speed


HENDERSON, Ky. - For a few hours Saturday, Ellis Park will step out of its typecasted role as a rural Thoroughbred outpost and stage a brand of racing that would be welcome at any racetrack anywhere.

Not only will such capable mares as Rose of Zollern, Royal Fair, and Asher clash in the premier race of the meet, the $200,000 Gardenia Stakes, but some excellent sprinters also will knock heads in the secondary feature, the $100,000 Ellis Park Breeders' Cup Stakes.

The Grade 3 Gardenia, the only graded race of the 41-day meet, seems to boil down to if, or when, Rose of Zollern and Royal Fair will be able to run down Asher, the speedy gray filly who already has won three stakes this year. One other early type, Please Sign In, also is entered among a field of eight, but trainer Ron Moquett believes Asher has matured to the extent that "she can relax off the hip of the speed," he said. "I used to cringe when I'd see other speed in against her, but she's really learning her way."

Mark Guidry will be in from Saratoga to ride Asher, who was scratched from the July 6 Iowa Distaff because of a minor prerace injury to her right hock. That Prairie Meadows race was won easily by odds-on Royal Fair, an improving mare trained by Rusty Arnold.

Royal Fair "is coming off a nice win, and the 1 1/8 miles are going to help her," said assistant trainer Jack Bohannan.

Conversely, Rose of Zollern, an impressive two-length winner of the local prep, the July 14 HBPA Handicap, is unproven at this distance. As the 119-pound highweight, Rose of Zollern will spot three pounds to Royal Fair and four to Asher.

"This is going to be a new experience for her," said Ralph Nicks, assistant to trainer Bill Mott. Nevertheless, he added, "her race record sure seems to be getting better as she goes."

Star Queen, Enquiry Woman, Zenith, and Fast Delivery round out the 20th running of the Gardenia.

The Ellis Park BC, shortened to six furlongs this year to accommodate a revised Ellis stakes schedule, attracted Miss Seffens and Hidden Assets among a field of six.

Nine other races also are carded for Saturday, when first post is 12:40 p.m. Central. Post time for the Gardenia is 5:20.

The Ellis meet runs through Sept. 3. Turfway Park begins its fall meet two nights later.