06/25/2004 11:00PM

Shaconage strong in stretch

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - As trainer Mitch Shirota entered the Churchill Downs winner's circle following the 23rd running of the Locust Grove Handicap, several friends playfully bowed down to honor Shirota for winning the Grade 3 race in stakes-record time with Shaconage.

"Aw, she should have won the last one, too," said Shirota, playing right along.

Shaconage, the 7-1 third choice in a field of six fillies and mares, finished 1 1/8 miles in 1:46.75 when she drove to a 1 1/4-length victory Saturday in the $165,750 , giving her two wins from three Grade 3 turf stakes at the Churchill spring meet. She returned $16.40 to win.

Halory Leigh, a 29-1 shot, was up in the final stride to nab second from pacesetting Sand Springs, while Riskaverse, the 3-5 favorite, failed to fire when finishing fifth.

Shaconage, a 4-year-old El Prado filly bred and owned by Andrena Van Doren, won the Argent Mortgage at 19-1 on the Kentucky Derby undercard, then was a troubled fifth in the May 29 Mint Julep Handicap. Veteran jockey Brice Blanc has been aboard her for all three races here.

"I was pretty confident today," said Blanc. " I just wanted to bide my time and follow those leaders, and when I turned for home, I was in a really good spot. She really responded for me when I asked her."

Amid perfect weather conditions and over a firm turf, Sand Springs, the 5-2 second choice, set a realistic pace under Mark Guidry. With Two Dot Slew at her flank and Riskaverse poised to make a run, Sand Springs fended off both those rivals, but then Shaconage, followed by Halory Leigh, came charging past.

For Shirota, the stakes winner was the second of his career at Churchill. For Blanc, it was his fourth of the meet.

The $2 exacta paid $304.60 and the $2 trifecta paid $1,195.60.

Earlier on the card, jockey Cornelio Velasquez rode three winners: Favorite Girl ($23.20) in the second, Orlik ($8.40) in the fifth, and Harbo ($7.40) in the sixth.