03/27/2008 11:00PM

Oaks heavies prep in Ashland

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With no shortage of stakes across the country for 3-year-old fillies, each region's division leaders are often kept apart before meeting in the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs.

Not this year. Come Saturday, the two early favorites for the Kentucky Oaks - Country Star and Proud Spell - are expected to meet in the Grade 1, $500,000 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland Race Course, where they are likely to be challenged by Bsharpsonata, who dominated in south Florida this winter by winning the Tropical Park Oaks, Grade 2 Forward Gal Stakes, and Grade 2 Davona Dale.

A mid-sized field is expected for the 1 1/16-mile Ashland, which will be run over Keeneland's Polytrack surface. Other likely starters include Absolutely Cindy, African Violet, Elusive Lady, Grace and Power, Life Is Sweet, and Little Belle, said Keeneland's stakes coordinator, Dan Bork.

Provided the probable lineup remains intact, the Ashland will be the first start of the year for Country Star and Grace and Power, who are unraced since running first and second in the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet Dec. 15. Proud Spell and Bsharpsonata, meanwhile, will be racing for the first time over a synthetic surface.

Proud Spell, winner of the Fair Grounds Oaks, and Bsharpsonata have been training at Keeneland, with Bsharpsonata working five furlongs in 1:01.60 there Wednesday and Proud Spell galloping there regularly.

Proud Spell and her Oaklawn-based stablemate, the Grade 3 Honeybee winner Eight Belles, have been nominated to the Triple Crown, trainer Larry Jones said Thursday. Jones said they are still both being pointed toward the Oaks, but making them late nominees to the Triple Crown keeps options open for the two fillies, such as running in the Derby, or in the Preakness after the Oaks.

"If no one is really stepping up," the Derby might be considered, Jones said. "Pyro is a strong candidate. But Proud Spell was running figures better than Pyro at Fair Grounds, and she would be getting pounds" in the Derby.

As for Eight Belles, Jones nominated her to the April 12 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn in addition to the April 6 Fantasy there, but was more inclined to start her in the Fantasy. "We could use that extra week" to prepare for the Oaks or Derby, he said. He added he wouldn't want her to draw a wide post for the Arkansas Derby, which is likely to have a much larger field than the Fantasy.

Backstretches filling up

With the opening of the Keeneland meet on Friday fast approaching, stable areas at both Keeneland and Churchill Downs are rapidly filling up with horses, largely from the south. A total of 47 horses worked at Keeneland Friday, up sharply from the 27 that breezed there a week earlier.

Entries will be taken Tuesday for the opening-day card, which includes the Grade 3, $150,000 Transylvania Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles on turf. Barrier Reef, Free Fighter, and Boss Lafitte are just a few of the colts under consideration for the race, Bork said.

Kathy's Lil Cat taking drop

In contrast to the horses who will be running at Keeneland opening week, Sunday's nine-race card at Turfway Park is filled with blue-collar runners. All nine races are claiming or maiden-claiming races, and the richest race on the card, the eighth race, a $12,500 claiming race for fillies and mares, carries a purse of $11,000.

Kathy's Lil Cat, dropping in class following a fifth-place finish against $16,000 claiming company, may start the favorite against five rivals in race 8 with Victor Lebron aboard.

With Turfway closing Thursday, Lebron, 23, is poised to finish as the meet's leading rider. Lebron held a commanding 71-59 advantage in wins in the rider standings over Thomas Pompell entering Friday evening's card.

Lebron and Pompell finished one-two in the rider standings last summer at Indiana Downs, where Lebron won his first riding title.