04/29/2003 11:00PM

Oaks rich in history, quality


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - A fitting appetizer to the Kentucky Derby's main course, the Kentucky Oaks gives the 3-year-old fillies a national stage on which to display their quality, and invariably they take full advantage of the opportunity. Elloluv, Lady Tak, Holiday Lady, and others who put on a good show in Keeneland's Ashland Stakes and earlier features in Florida and California have trained in fine fashion and appear ready for a memorable afternoon.

On the evidence of the Ashland, Elloluv is the one to beat. She took the lead early and held it against challenges by Lady Tak and Holiday Lady, her cause aided by a well-judged ride on the part of Robby Albarado. She carried her speed nicely in the Ashland, but trainer Craig Dollase said she can be rated off the pace as a contingency. Her draw of post 1, however, seems to have settled the issue.

Elloluv, by Gilded Time, was a $120,000 purchase at the Keeneland 2-year-old sales on behalf of J. Paul Reddam, the home-loan impresario. It didn't take her long to prove a bargain. She won a maiden race on a muddy track last fall and in her next start was a four-length winner of the Grade 1 Hollywood Starlet.

In seven attempts she has never finished worse than third, earning $774,785. Horsemen prize consistency as a guide to quality, and Elloluv appears to have her share.

We've seen many a filly of quality in the Kentucky Oaks over the past 48 years, and the one who left the biggest impression was Calumet Farm's Princess Turia, who beat the champion Doubledogdare by a nose in 1956, possibly the greatest Kentucky Oaks ever run.

Princess Turia, under Bill Hartack, and Doubledogdare, with Steve Brooks in the saddle, dueled through Churchill Downs's long stretch in a competitive fury rarely seen. Though she had foot problems throughout her career, Princess Turia refused to be beaten in the Oaks, earning the admiration of all who saw her.

There have been other Oaks of treasured memory, including the victory of Keeper Hill by a neck over Banshee Breeze in 1998, Sardula's head decision over Lakeway in 1994, and the 1986 running, when Tiffany Lass won in a photo with Life at the Top.

These were races to be savored, Oaks to be conjured up when the talk turns to greatness. The 2003 Oaks fillies will be measured by a high standard.

Staying with the plan

When Arazi came from France for the Kentucky Derby of 1992, trainer Francois Boutin, anxious to guard his colt against the excitement that prevails in the stable area at Churchill Downs during Derby week, hoped to train his talented colt at Keeneland. There was a problem with the quarantine facility in Lexington, however, and Arazi remained at the Downs, always under close scrutiny. Favored in the Derby at 4-5, he finished eighth.

When Brancusi arrived at Keeneland this spring from his base in California, trainer Patrick Louis Biancone said he would train his Kentucky Derby prospect at the Lexington track during the pre-Derby period, moving over to Churchill Downs for the two days preceding the race.

"It is not so much that I wanted to avoid the excitement," Biancone said. "My stable is at Keeneland, where we raced at the recent spring meeting, and it was convenient to have them all together in one place. The Keeneland grass track is another factor in the decision. It holds up well in wet weather, and gives us an option if we don't want to work him on a muddy main track."

Biancone scheduled a work for the main track at Churchill Downs last Saturday, but rain fell in Louisville on Friday. Biancone canceled the Louisville trip and sent Brancusi a mile on the Keeneland grass, which the Deputy Minister colt covered in 1:42. Biancone was pleased with the move and was to ship Brancusi to Louisville Wednesday evening.

The trainer is not concerned that the two days in the Churchill Downs stable area will be harmful to his chances in the Derby. Instead, Biancone believes it will "wake him up" and help his chances.

Biancone has an extensive background in classic racing. He has saddled two winners of the French Derby, winning with Bikala in 1981 and with Hours After in 1988. He has a high regard for Brancusi, named for a prominent Romanian sculptor. Brancusi was purchased for $375,000 at Saratoga in the interests of the international sportsman Michael Tabor, whose Thunder Gulch won the 1995 Kentucky Derby.

Brancusi, who won a maiden race in an impressive effort at Santa Anita in mid-February, finished second in the recent Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Biancone believes his horse is moving forward at the right time and has a chance to score a notable upset. Brancusi will be ridden by Tony Farina, a young French jockey who came to the United States last fall. He has ridden Brancusi in all his starts this season and appears able to get the best out of this promising colt.