04/06/2004 12:00AM

Halfbridled hard to look past

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - They didn't do anything to anybody. All they wanted to do was run in a nice, little, one-turn, graded race with a $250,000 pot. And what did the owners and trainers with fillies in the Stonerside Beaumont Stakes get?

A date with a monster.

While the whims of the racing gods smiled last weekend on Madcap Escapade, they turned on the good people with designs on the Beaumont, the Grade 2 race that will be run for the 19th time Thursday at Keeneland. Halfbridled, the standout filly who made thousands of fans when she went undefeated last year, has turned up in the Beaumont entries after being forced to miss the Ashland Stakes last Saturday after a temporary bout with muscle cramps.

"I'm just glad we'll have the chance to run after missing the Ashland," said trainer Richard Mandella, whose primary focus is the April 30 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs. "She's fine now. She tied up the one day but has been perfect since. I'm going into this race feeling good about the way she's doing."

While the defection of Halfbridled from the Ashland surely made things easier for Madcap Escapade to lead wire to wire in the Ashland and go into the Oaks unbeaten, the respective tasks for Halfbridled's opponents in the Beaumont suddenly have gotten much tougher. Halfbridled incurred her first career defeat to the highly regarded Silent Sighs in her seasonal debut, the March 13 Santa Anita Oaks, but Mandella has said he expects the filly to benefit from that comeback race and to continue to make steady progress.

Probably the most accomplished of her challengers is Victory U. S. A., the Bob Baffert-trained filly who finished third behind Halfbridled in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Victory U. S. A., owned by Tom VanMeter, finished second in her only start this year, chasing Ashado in the Fair Grounds Oaks last month.

Fringe contenders in a field of nine include Movant, Sweet Vision, and Wildwood Flower.

The Beaumont frequently shapes up as a pivotal early-season race among the 3-year-old filly set, having been won by such notables as Go for Wand (1990), Golden Gale (1996), and Xtra Heat (2001). Last year, My Boston Gal prevailed by 1 1/4 lengths over Bird Town, who wheeled back to upset the Oaks in her next start.

The Beaumont is carded as the eighth of nine Thursday races. Four allowances also are on tap. First post is 1:15 p.m. Eastern.