04/06/2005 11:00PM

Shades of Azeri in Ashado's return to races

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Another Apple Blossom, another champion making her comeback.

Ashado on Saturday at Oaklawn Park looks like the successor to Azeri, winner of the last three runnings of the Grade 1, $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap. The race will be Ashado's first since her victory in the Breeders' Cup Distaff on Oct. 30.

locked up champion 3-year-old filly honors last year by being the first filly to turn a Kentucky Oaks-BC Distaff double. Her other wins of 2004 included the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks and the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks.

For the Apple Blossom, Ashado is highweighted at 121 pounds against seven rivals, including Grade 1 winners Island Fashion, Star Parade, and Island Sand. Adding further depth to the 1 1/16-mile race are Grade 2 winners Dream of Summer, Shadow Cast, and House of Fortune, who is coupled with Good Student. Both are trained by Ron McAnally.

A special daily double will link the Apple Blossom and the Grade 2, $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap, the supporting feature on Oaklawn's Million Dollar Saturday card. The two stakes open the 32nd annual Racing Festival of the South, a cluster of nine stakes run over the last six days of the meet that culminates with next Saturday's Arkansas Derby. Total stakes purses for the festival are $2,275,000.

Ashado has been pointed to the Apple Blossom all winter by trainer Todd Pletcher.

"We felt like it's important to start her off at a mile and a sixteenth," said Pletcher, who trains Ashado for Starlight Stable, Paul Saylor, and Johns Martin. "That's the main reason she hasn't started until now. We've accomplished what we wanted in keeping her fit, yet freshening her. She's right where I want her to be for her first race of the season."

Ashado shows an impressive series of works for her return, and in her first trip over the Oaklawn surface on Thursday morning she looked outstanding - a stouter, filled-out version of the filly who defeated older rivals in her first attempt in the Breeders' Cup.

John Velazquez has the mount on Ashado on Saturday, and the pair should be prominent early in the race, said Pletcher.

"I would expect her to be somewhat fresh, and place herself forwardly," he said. "She has good tactical speed. If there's no pace whatsoever, she could find herself on the lead."

, the second highweight at 117 pounds, puts blinkers back on after finishing an uncharacteristic ninth against males in her last start, the Santa Anita Handicap.

"Most of the time when we get to the paddock, she gets on the muscle," said Marcelo Polanco, who trains Island Fashion for Everest Stables. "But she was quiet, and after the race was not even tired. She focuses better [with blinkers] and is more aggressive, and that's how I like to see her."

Polanco said Island Fashion, a 5-year-old, has filled out since last year. He is looking for another strong season from the three-time Grade 1 winner.

"She's a very impressive filly," he said.

Jamie Theriot, who led the Oaklawn standings through Wednesday, has the mount on Island Fashion, whose last win came Oct. 3 at the Apple Blossom distance in the Grade 2 Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita.

, who also invades from Santa Anita, figures to start as the second betting choice to Ashado. Last out, Dream of Summer finished second by a nose in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita on March 12. Her natural speed will serve her well from the rail post Saturday.

"She can be on or close to the lead," said Juan Garcia, who trains Dream of Summer. Patrick Valenzuela has the mount.

Island Sand faced Ashado twice last year, finishing a troubled second to her in the Kentucky Oaks. She has made two starts this year, finishing second in the $50,000 Pippin Stakes at Oaklawn and third in the Grade 3 Azeri, a race in which she was stepped on at the start and lost her left hind shoe. She will add blinkers on Saturday, said her trainer, Larry Jones.

* Forecasters are calling for a high of 75 degrees and clear skies Saturday.

The field

Apple Blossom Handicap
Purse: $500,000; 1 1/16 miles; Grade 1

PPHORSEJOCKEYWT.ODDS
1Dream of SummerP. Valenzuela116 7-2
2Star ParadeJ. McKee116 8-1
3Shadow CastC. Borel114 15-1
4a-Good StudentE. Coa112 5-1
5a-House of FortuneE. Coa114 5-1
6AshadoJ. Velazquez121 6-5
7Island FashionJ. Theriot117 9-2
8Island SandT. Thompson114 15-1

* a-coupled; odds by Vance Hanson
* Television: Saturday, 4-6 p.m. (Eastern), TVG