04/04/2008 11:00PM

Little Belle springs Ashland surprise

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Little Belle fought back after being headed to pull a 16-1 upset Saturday over Bsharpsonata in the 71st running of the Grade 1, $500,000 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland.

While Proud Spell, the 9-5 second choice, mustered a mild rally to finish third, Country Star was never a serious factor when finishing fifth as the even-money favorite.

Little Belle set a relaxed pace under Rajiv Maragh before digging in tenaciously to prevail by a neck. She returned $34.20 as fifth choice in a field of seven 3-year-old fillies. She finished the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.69 over Polytrack.

Little Belle, an A.P. Indy filly bred and owned by Darley Stable, is based in New York with trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, whose brother and assistant, Neal, said the filly most likely will run next in the May 2 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs.

Little Belle took four races before winning for the first time Feb. 1 in an Aqueduct maiden route. She then won the Feb. 24 Busher Stakes in her only subsequent start.

"We felt like she deserved a chance to show what she could do against these top fillies," said Neal McLaughlin. "Rajiv gave her a beautiful ride. This filly keeps improving. She really wants to run all day."

Before a crowd of 23,895, and amid cloudy and cool weather, Little Belle set fractions of 24.95, 49.52, and 1:13.46 before Bsharpsonata, always closest to her, drew even after straightening for home. Down the stretch, Bsharpsonata, a 5-1 shot under Eric Camacho, actually got about a half-length in front, but Little Belle rallied back nearest the rail to earn the winner's $310,000 share.

"She gave me a good burst," said Maragh, who was winning a Grade 1 race for the first time.

Bsharpsonata likely will run next in the Oaks, as will Proud Spell, who was making her Polytrack debut off a victory in the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks. The Ashland marked the first time she had finished worse than second in seven career starts.

Country Star, fractious before the break with Robby Albarado aboard, raced sixth most of the way and failed to make up ground when attempting to circle rivals on the far turn. The filly was making her 3-year-old debut after ending 2007 with wins in back-to-back Grade 1 races.