04/03/2004 1:00AM

Madcap Escapade all the way

Madcap Escapade (inside) defeats Ashado by a half-length in Saturday's Ashland Stakes at Keeneland. It was Madcap Escapade's first two-turn race.

LEXINGTON, Ky. - Madcap Escapade ran herself right into the Kentucky Oaks, turning back the first serious challenge of her still-perfect career in a half-length triumph in the $485,000 at Keeneland on Saturday.

After jockey Rene Douglas meted out her considerable speed, Madcap Escapade successfully held off a stretch bid from Ashado in making the first two-turn start of her career. Owned by Bruce Lunsford and trained by Frank Brothers, Madcap Escapade returned $3.40 as the heavy favorite in a field of four 3-year-old fillies.

Madcap Escapade, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Hennessy, now will head to the April 30 Kentucky Oaks as one of the favorites. The Grade 1 Ashland followed three smashing wins at Gulfstream Park, all in sprints.

Before a crowd of 22,862, and amid spectacular spring weather, Madcap Escapade broke sharply and was quickly in full control of the 1 1/16-mile Ashland, having easily cleared Ashado, the 8-5 second choice who did not break particularly well from her inside post. Through fractions of 24.03 seconds, 47.50, and 1:11.46, Madcap Escapade maintained a controlled lead over La Reina, who began tiring in the far turn, and Ashado, who saved ground throughout.

Down the stretch, as Ashado loomed boldly, Douglas went to the whip 13 times to keep his filly in front as she finished in 1:44.55 over a fast track. Ashado was four lengths clear of Last Song, who had another three lengths on La Reina.

The winning $2 exacta paid a mere $5.40. There was no show or trifecta betting.

"Keeneland is a special place, and this is a special filly," said Lunsford, a Louisville businessman who graduated from the the University of Kentucky in Lexington.

The Ashland lost some its luster Friday when Halfbridled was scratched after suffering muscle cramps. The setback apparently was short-lived, however, as the filly was able to return to light training Saturday morning. Trainer Richard Mandella is still hoping Halfbridled will be able to run Thursday in the Stonerside Beaumont Stakes in what would be her final prep for the Oaks.

In earlier allowance races at Keeneland Saturday, Congrats ($5) returned from a five-month layoff to win a $67,000 allowance route for trainer Shug McGaughey, and Silver Crown ($12.40), trained by Frank "Bobby" Springer, gamely held off heavily favored Marylebone to win a $58,000 allowance sprint when making her first start in four months.

Neil Howard also turned in a notable training feat when Alumni Hall ($37.60), a 5-year-old first-time starter by A.P. Indy, won a $50,000 maiden special race. Alumni Hall is out of Private Status, making him a half-brother to 2000 Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Status.