04/02/2004 12:00AM

Minor setback for Halfbridled

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Halfbridled, the morning-line favorite for the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland Saturday, was scratched from the race after "tying up," or suffering muscle cramps, following a routine gallop Friday morning.

Trainer Richard Mandella said the setback is only temporary and that he may even try to run Halfbridled on Thursday in the Stonerside Beaumont at Keeneland. Or, Mandella said, he may train Halfbridled up to the April 30 Kentucky Oaks.

Mandella said he noticed Halfbridled was uncomfortable while she was cooling out after her gallop, and that it soon became apparent she was suffering from the fairly common malady technically known as azoturia, or tying up. The filly was treated with Banamine, an anti-inflammatory agent, and Robaxin, a muscle relaxant, to ease her discomfort.

Halfbridled, bred and owned by Wertheimer Farm, arrived here Wednesday following a flight from Southern California. The Unbridled filly won all four starts last year to earn an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old filly. She finished second in her only start this year, the March 13 Santa Anita Oaks.

"This could've been worse," said Mandella. "She's always had a little trouble with this, although she hadn't done it in a while. I think it was just the changes and excitement and everything that may have led to it."

Halfbridled had been the 6-5 program favorite for the 1 1/16-mile, $500,000 Ashland. Her defection now leaves a field of four, with Madcap Escapade the favorite over Ashado, La Reina, and Last Song.

The Grade 2, $250,000 Beaumont is run at the Beard Course distance of seven furlongs and 184 feet. Keeneland racing officials were expecting a sizable field, including Victory U. S. A., Movant, Sweet Vision, Whirlwind Charlott, and Wildwood Flower.

Mandella said Halfbridled will remain in Kentucky through the Oaks. "She'll stay here at Keeneland until we take her over to Churchill Downs," he said.

The defection of Halfbridled from the Ashland does not affect her status in Pool 3 of the Kentucky Oaks Future Wager, which runs through Sunday. Officials at Churchill, which conducts future wagers on the Oaks and Kentucky Derby, said they were alerted of Halfbridled's condition early Friday.

"The rules state that we suspend wagering only in the case of an illness and injury that definitely precludes a horse from running in the Oaks," said Churchill vice president John Asher. "So in this case, Halfbridled stays in."