10/28/2005 12:00AM

Much at stake in Ashado's career finale

With a victory, Ashado would surpass Azeri on the all-time earnings list and earn a second straight Eclipse.

ELMONT, N.Y. - She was counted out after her first start of the year, doubts remained after her second, and still more were raised again this summer. Ashado, however, has proven time and again that it is folly to write her off. The final chapter in her amazing career will be written on Saturday at Belmont Park, and she is trying to go out on top.

Ashado, 4, will be attempting to capture the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff for the second straight year. She is trying to nail down an Eclipse Award as champion older filly or mare, having secured the 3-year-old filly title last year. And if she wins - or even finishes second - Ashado will bypass Azeri as the richest filly or mare based in North America.

Ashado heads into the 1 1/8-mile Distaff having earned $3,711,440. Azeri, the 2002 Horse of the Year, won $4,079,820 during her spectacular career. Second place in the Distaff is worth $400,000. But Ashado does not often settle for second. In her 20 starts, she has won 12 and finished second four times.

Earlier this year, Ashado disappointed in the Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park and the Pimlico Breeders' Cup Distaff. Trainer Todd Pletcher warned doubters that Ashado was rounding into form, and she subsequently captured the Ogden Phipps and Go for Wand. She flopped in the Personal Ensign, but a foot bruise was discovered after the race, and again Ashado rebounded with a victory, last time out in the Beldame Stakes. That brought her record to 4 for 6 at Belmont.

In the Distaff, she will start from post 3, just outside the likely pacesetter, Stellar Jayne.

"We will see what develops the first part," Pletcher said.

Ashado might recognize several familiar faces who are trying to knock her off. Stellar Jayne faced Ashado five times last year, and finished in front of her twice. Stellar Jayne's campaign has been light this year, but she has won both her 2005 starts, including the Ruffian at Belmont, where she is 4 for 5.

"There's a long run to the turn here, so there should be some semblance of order," said Rick Mettee, who is the New York-based assistant to Stellar Jayne's British-based trainer, Saeed bin Suroor.

Happy Ticket was second and Society Selection third in the Beldame behind Ashado. Happy Ticket, who began her career in Louisiana, has won 10 times in 12 starts. She lost by only a half-length in the Beldame after encountering some traffic trouble at the top of the stretch. That was only her second start in a Grade 1 race.

"I always knew she could run from the get-go," said her trainer, Andy Leggio. "It was just a matter of how good she was."

Society Selection has puzzled her trainer, Allen Jerkens, who admitted he was disappointed with her last race.

"I thought she would do better," Jerkens said. "I didn't really think she had an excuse. She's training good. I guess she's doing okay. I'm just hoping for the best."

You can forgive Jerkens for his circumspect approach. A Hall of Fame trainer, he is frustrated by his record in the Breeders' Cup. He has sent out eight starters, has never finished in the money, and has had seven of his eight runners finish eighth or worse.

"I don't know what to think with these races," Jerkens said. "I haven't had any luck."

Society Selection has finished first or second in 6 of 8 starts at Belmont, and her lone win this year came here, in the Shuvee.

There are several survivors from the decimated 3-year-old filly class of 2005 who have made it to the Distaff, including Sweet Symphony, who won her first four starts, including the Alabama, before finishing fourth in the Beldame. She drew post 12.

"I'm very happy with that post," said her trainer, Bill Mott. "In a one-turn race, there's plenty of time to get position. Being out there would be my preference."

In the Gold, another 3-year-old, has a longshot look. She has won twice at Belmont in three starts, most recently in the Gazelle. In a race where many of the elders might have peaked, In the Gold appears on an upswing. She never has faced older horses. But neither had Ashado before last year's Distaff.