07/15/2002 12:00AM

Headgear gets Harlan Ash into gear

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CHICAGO - Go ahead, make fun of the goofy hood. With it, Harlan Ash has gone from a skittish maiden to a stakes-placed mare.

She is also one of the favorites Wednesday in Arlington's feature, a third-level allowance with a $50,000 claiming option that drew a field of eight fillies and mares.

The hood isn't hard to spot. There it sits, covering the top of Harlan Ash's head, ears and all. It's padded and prominent, but if it has affronted her dignity Harlan Ash isn't telling, and the hood clearly has aided her development as a racehorse.

Harlan Ash was skittish and difficult from the beginning, trainer Doug Matthews said.

"When she was a maiden we'd run her in blinkers," said Matthews. "She kept making the lead and hanging. It seemed obvious, and I thought so too, that you'd just take the blinkers off, but we did that and she didn't beat a horse."

What Harlan Ash needed was more equipment on her head, not less. While the blinkers kept sights from distracting her, Harlan Ash also lost focus because of sound. "She'd hear stuff behind her and she'd want to take off," Matthews said.

Matthews had used a hood with muffled ear pads on another horse and had success, so he tried it with Harlan Ash two seasons ago at Fair Grounds. She won easily that day and has been a better horse ever since.

Growing up has helped, too. Matthews said Harlan Ash, now 5, has gotten over the aches and pains of her 4-year-old season, and in jockey Zoe Cadman the mare has found a pilot she will run for.

Harlan Ash comes out of three stakes races in which she was third, fourth, and third, and Wednesday's nine-furlong dirt race is a step down in class.

In an age of speed-figure favorites, Don'truffleme will vie for favoritism with Harlan Ash, since both horses earned the field's top recent Beyer Speed Figure in their last start. Beyond the mathematics of her career, Don'truffleme still has to prove she's a true route horse, having done best in one-turn races like the allowance she won here June 14.

And then there is the enigmatic Lakenheath, second in the Grade 3 Sixty Sails almost three months ago but rotten in two races since. Lakenheath does have potential excuses for her recent failures and has trained up a storm over the Arlington surface, where she is Grade 3-placed.

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