04/03/2008 12:00AM

Proud Spell's class overshadows Country Star's


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Even short on entries, Saturday's Grade 1 Ashland Stakes at Keeneland is a great race, a contest that offers the much of the quality, although not the depth, that the Kentucky Oaks is expected to offer next month.

With Proud Spell and Country Star - two of the finalists for champion juvenile filly of last year - in the seven-horse race, plus three other stakes-winning fillies, it is the best stakes race for 3-year-old fillies assembled yet this year. And it offers challenging questions for handicappers that might offer somewhat of an opportunity to capitalize at the betting windows, provided, of course, that one comes up with the right answers.

Questions include the following: Can Proud Spell, who has raced quickly but exclusively on dirt, transfer her form to Polytrack? Will Country Star be cranked enough for her return, not having raced since winning the Dec. 15 Hollywood Starlet? And does Bsharpsonata, a winner of four straight starts, possess the potential to run with Proud Spell and Country Star, or was her dominance in Florida this winter the result of a weak stakes division in the Sunshine State?

My belief is, yes, Proud Spell should take to the Polytrack. Yes, Country Star will be cranked for her return. But, no, Bsharpsonata is not quite in the same class as the big two.

On the basis of company kept, not recency, I believe Proud Spell will beat Country Star. Even though the latter is a dual Grade 1 winner, the opposition she faced in her two Grade 1 victories was of lesser quality than what Proud Spell has faced in her recent starts.

A to the Croft and Grace Anatomy, second and third in last fall's Alcibiades behind Country Star, have managed two on-the-board finishes in six subsequent starts combined. And as for Grace and Power and The Golden Noodle - second and third, respectively, in the Hollywood Starlet - they have not run back, but entering the Hollywood Starlet they had never placed in a graded race.

Just two of the nine horses that competed in the Hollywood Starlet have returned to start - fourth-place Set Play, who subsequently ran fourth in the Grade 3 La Habra; and the Grace Anatomy, who went on to run second in the Grade 3 Santa Ysabel, fifth in the Grade 1 Las Virgenes, and sixth in the WinStar Oaks.

Proud Spell, meanwhile, has faced a champion in Indian Blessing in her last three races, running second to her in a sloppy Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, second to her in the Grade 3 Silverbulletday at Fair Grounds, and beating her in the March 8 Fair Grounds Oaks even though Indian Blessing made an easy lead.

Admittedly, the move to Polytrack could leave Proud Spell vulnerable to regression, especially given that offspring of her sire, Proud Citizen, have weak statistics on synthetic tracks. (According to Bloodstock Research Information Services, seven of his offspring have raced on all-weather tracks this year, earning a combined $34,700 on such surfaces.)

But Proud Spell is far and away Proud Citizen's top performer, and having handled so many different dirt tracks with ease, she does not appear picky about the type of surface on which she races.

Her lack of experience racing on a synthetic track perhaps will result in her starting at a respectable price, maybe around 2-1.

Illinois Derby: Go against Denis of Cork

Saturday's Illinois Derby at Hawthorne also has a short field.

Unbeaten Denis of Cork is the most probable winner, having pushed his unbeaten record to 3 for 3 with a fast win in the Gradeo3 Southwest. But he has been hyped so much in recent weeks that I am anticipating him starting as a short-priced favorite, thereby creating value on the opposition.

My choice is Z Humor, who ran deceptively well to be fourth in the Fountain of Youth after breaking a step slowly and getting shuffled back into the first turn. Making his third start off a layoff, he looks primed for a peak performance.

He proved his class last year in dead-heating for the win in the Grade 3 Delta Jackpot, and also in running third in the Champagne, finishing three lengths behind War Pass and 1 1/2 lengths behind Pyro.

Connally: Let's beat another favorite

For those who can't get enough stakes action during the afternoon Saturday, there is always the $200,000 John B. Connally Turf at night, 9:36 Central time to be exact.

The class and morning-line favorite is Grade 1 Pacific Classic winner Student Council, but not having finished better than third in four turf starts, he could be vulnerable in the Connally, a 1 1/8-mile grass race.

My choice is 2007 Super Derby winner Going Ballistic, who has shown the versatility to win on dirt and turf. On turf, he has a record of 3 wins, 2 seconds, and 2 thirds from 7 starts.

Starting for the third time this year, following a third in the Grade 3 Razorback on dirt at Oaklawn, he appears ready for a winning effort.