04/05/2012 11:34AM

Keeneland: Ashland favorite Stephanie's Kitten sees Royal Ascot on horizon, not Kentucky Oaks

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Barbara D. Livingston
Stephanie's Kitten will make her 3-year-old debut in Saturday's Ashland, then rest until the Coronation at Royal Ascot in June.

LEXINGTON, Ky. – The Ashland Stakes has been a major prep toward the Kentucky Oaks for decades. It still might serve in that role Saturday when the Ashland is run for the 75th time at Keeneland, but if Stephanie’s Kitten wins as the favorite, a whole new world will have opened up.

[ASHLAND STAKES: Get PPs, watch Saturday's full Keeneland card live]

Stephanie’s Kitten, making her first start since winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf last fall, is being pointed not to the Oaks, but to the June 22 Coronation Stakes at the prestigious Royal Ascot meet in England.

“We’re just taking it one race at a time,” said Wayne Catalano, who trains Stephanie’s Kitten for her breeders, Ken and Sarah Ramsey. “I guess we could run her one more time before Ascot, but I’m not really thinking about that right now.”

Julien Leparoux has the mount on Stephanie’s Kitten, who was assigned the outside post in a field of seven 3-year-old fillies ready to go in the Ashland. The 1 1/16-mile Polytrack race will be part of the “Road to the Kentucky Derby” series on NBC (4:30-6 p.m. Eastern), with post time set for 4:45. The race will also be shown live on DRF.com.

Catalano said he has no qualms about running Stephanie’s Kitten in a Grade 1 race despite the five-month layoff. The filly had time off after the Breeders’ Cup before returning to training at Gulfstream Park, where she had five workouts followed by two more recent breezes over the Keeneland Poly. Before the Breeders’ Cup, she was a 1 1/2-length winner here in the Grade 1 Alcibiades.

“That’s part of what makes you feel good about it, that she won a Grade 1 over this track last year,” said Catalano. “I don’t mind the layoff. I remember before I won the Breeders’ Cup [Juvenile Fillies in 2006] with Dreaming of Anna, everybody was asking me about a seven-week layoff and her never running on dirt. I guess we’ll just be testing my training skills once again.”

Other than Stephanie’s Kitten, it’s fair to say the other six fillies are trying to earn their way into the 138th Oaks on May 4 at Churchill Downs. The last Ashland winner to capture the Oaks was Silverbulletday in 1999, although most of the last 12 Ashland winners have tried the Oaks.

Maybe the two chief threats to Stephanie’s Kitten are Karlovy Vary and Lotta Lovin. Karlovy Vary was a sharp last-out winner of a Gulfstream turf allowance in late February and has been “doing fabulous” in her training at Keeneland since being sent here shortly afterward, according to trainer Rusty Arnold.

Lotta Lovin, trained by Mike Maker, blossomed into a Poly specialist over the winter when posting competitive Beyer Speed Figures in three straight stakes victories at Turfway Park.

“She’s already run a Thoro-Graph and Ragozin top better than what it took to win the Ashland last year,” said her owner, New York businessman Buck Butler. “This is her class test, but she’s an ‘A’ student.”

The others in the Ashland field seem to belong, too. Dixie Strike was a two-back winner of the Florida Oaks on the Tampa Bay Downs turf. Hard Not to Like also raced last in the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf, finishing a respectable fifth at 20-1. Heart of Destiny was a close second to Karlovy Vary in the Gulfstream allowance. And Goldrush Girl, a maiden winner last fall over the Keeneland Poly, has shown consistency and versatility in her six career starts.

The race shape appears tough to predict because there is no clear-cut front-runner among the seven. Maybe Lotta Lovin, having raced mainly in shorter races, or the two fresh fillies, Stephanie’s Kitten and Hard Not to Like, will show more speed than normal. In any case, the pack could be very well bunched once they hit the far turn, and then it would turn into a mad dash to the first wire. Polytrack races at 1 1/16 miles at Keeneland begin and end at what otherwise is the sixteenth pole.

The Ashland goes as the eighth of 10 races on a Saturday card that also includes four allowances (races 5, 6, 9, 10). First post is 1:05 p.m. The weather forecast calls for mostly sunny skies and a high of 59.

Saturday ends an abbreviated opening weekend; there is no racing here Sunday because of the Easter holiday. The first five-day race week picks up Wednesday.

Ashland S. (G1), Post Time: 4:45 ET Saturday

Purse: $500,000; 1 1/16 miles

Post

Horse

Trainer

Jockey

ML Odds

1

Dixie Strike

M. Casse

J. Lezcano

8-1

1

Hard Not To Like

G. Cox

R. Albarado

6-1

1

Heart of Destiny

J. Baker

E. Prado

4-1

1

Karlovy Vary

G. Arnold, II

J. Graham

5-1

1

Goldrush Girl

K. McPeek

M. Cruz

8-1

1

Lotta Lovin

M. Maker

A. Garcia

5-1

1

Stephanie's Kitten

W. Catalano

J. Leparoux

8-5