04/24/2008 11:00PM

Little Belle seeks rare Ashland-Oaks double


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It has been nine years since an Ashland Stakes winner has won the Kentucky Oaks, but the connections of Little Belle believe the dramatically improved filly stands a solid chance when the 134th Oaks is run Friday at Churchill Downs.

Little Belle won the April 5 Ashland for Darley Stable, but as often happens under the vast umbrella of racing operations owned by Sheikh Mohammed al Maktoum, the filly has been promoted after hitting peak form. With that, regular jockey Rajiv Maragh will be wearing the familiar blue silks of the sheikh's premier stable, Godolphin Racing, in the Grade 1, $500,000 Oaks.

Friday at Keeneland, Little Belle was out for some serious work over Polytrack when breezing a half-mile in 46.20 seconds. Neal McLaughlin, assistant to and brother of trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, oversaw the drill.

"We're going to stay here as long as we can," he said. "She just really likes this track here. With the weather looking like it could be a little questionable next week with rain and all, I'd just rather stay here and keep her happy."

Little Belle has made remarkable progress in recent months. She started the winter in obscurity at Aqueduct, winning a Feb. 1 maiden race in her fourth career start, then took the Feb. 24 Busher Stakes. She then shipped to Keeneland and won the Ashland at 16-1.

Silverbulletday was the last filly to pull the Ashland-Oaks double, doing so in 1999 for owner Mike Pegram and trainer Bob Baffert.

Meanwhile, Eight Belles and Proud Spell shipped Friday afternoon from Keeneland to Churchill, pulling through the stable gate at about 4:15 p.m. Eastern. Trainer Larry Jones said there is no change in what has been discussed recently in regard to which races the fillies will run in.

"As it stands right now, it'll be Proud Spell in the Oaks and Eight Belles in the Derby," he said.

With Proud Spell, but not Eight Belles, the prospective Oaks field stood at 10 to 12 as of Friday. Entries will be drawn Tuesday.

Romans looks to end drought

Trainer Dale Romans went winless at the Keeneland meet, but now that he's back at his place of dominance, the winners should start coming in bunches. One good opportunity for Romans to get a good start on gunning for an eighth Churchill training title will come in the Sunday feature, a $51,300, entry-level allowance in which he will saddle Zakouma in a field of eight.

Zakouma won impressively during Derby week last year in his only career start, but the 3-year-old Forest Camp colt subsequently had to be sidelined with what Romans called "a little problem. But he's doing good now. I gambled a little by trying him against older horses, hoping it'd come up softer than against straight 3-year-olds. We'll see what happens."

Zakouma, with Kent Desormeaux to ride, is one of a handful of viable contenders in the ninth of 10 Sunday races, which will be run at six furlongs. Visible Truth, Mutadda, and Shone are other logical players.

Casse brings string to Churchill

There hasn't been a lot of turnover among trainers who will be stabled at Churchill through the end of the spring meet, July 6, although Mark Casse is a notable exception. Casse is playing the role of prodigal son: He was just 27 when he was the leading trainer at the 1988 spring meet at Churchill.

Casse, 47, left Kentucky soon thereafter, and in recent years has become a dominant trainer in Canada. His stable has gotten so big that he is now able to have a 16-horse string here. His son and assistant, Norman, will oversee the Churchill string while his father commutes back and forth.

"This is my dream job," said the younger Casse, who said he was "just a little kid when we were here in the late '80s."

Street Sense book signing

The Street Sense connections will be available Sunday at Churchill from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. to sign a limited run of commemorative coffee-table books entitled "Kentucky Derby." Owner Jim Tafel, trainer Carl Nafzger, jockey Calvin Borel, and author John Asher will sign the books, which cost $60, including a DVD. After Sunday, the books will sell for $125 on secretariat.com.