03/04/2004 12:00AM

Small Oaks field full of true contenders


NEW ORLEANS - Why decry the short field in Saturday's Fair Grounds Oaks? In this case, six is enough.

The $300,000 Oaks marks the 2004 debut of , the two-three finishers in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last October. And it is a mark of the race's quality that these two have no decided edge on the others.

Also entered are Shadow Cast and Quick Temper, one-two in the Grade 2 Silverbulletday Stakes here Feb. 14; Bending Strings, perhaps the top 3-year-old filly in northern California; and Steady Course, a Fair Grounds-based rising star in the division.

Ashado was scheduled to arrive here from trainer Todd Pletcher's base at the Palm Meadows Training Center in Florida late Thursday afternoon. Pletcher said he left home with his filly to avoid a demanding comeback spot next weekend in the Forward Gal Stakes and because Ashado is ready to roll right now.

"She's ready to run," Pletcher said. "The race this weekend would put us a month before the Ashland."

That Pletcher has the Grade 1 Ashland - and perhaps the Kentucky Oaks - firmly in mind says much about Ashado's ability. Ashado developed early, winning the Grade 1 Spinaway last August at Saratoga, but Pletcher said the filly, who is owned by Starlight Stable and Martin Saylor, has the body of a route horse. Indeed, Ashado finished off her 2-year-old season with a gritty win in the 1 1/8-mile Demoiselle.

Said Pletcher, "I don't think she'll run her best race of the season Saturday, but I think she's going to run very well."

Is something less than Ashado's best enough? Ashado finished just a neck in front of Victory U. S. A. in the Breeders' Cup, and though she showed her heart in the Demoiselle, the final quarter-mile of that race seemed to go on forever.

Victory U. S. A. would seem like a more appealing alternative had she not finished fourth, beaten more than 11 lengths, in the Dec. 21 Hollywood Starlet. Trainer Bob Baffert said the filly "had a rough trip" in the Starlet. "She was stuck down on the inside," Baffert said.

Three weeks ago, Shadow Cast turned in the best race of her career to win the Silverbulletday, and she has developed steadily here this winter for owner Bill Farish Jr. and trainer Neil Howard.

"I think there's a 100 percent chance she'll move forward, but you may not notice it," Howard said. "Bill Farish and I have been very emphatic in that we're in a gray area with her. Where she's going to fit in with legitimate graded fillies has yet to be determined."

Quick Temper might have defeated Shadow Cast in the Silverbulletday had she not lost her rail position when she ducked out sharply leaving the clubhouse turn. Steady Course may defeat everyone Saturday if she follows up on a brilliant entry-level allowance victory here Feb. 13.

On that day, Steady Course had many factors working against her. Unraced since mid-November because of a mild virus, Steady Course hadn't raced around two turns and was facing winners for the first time. But after rating beautifully for jockey Shane Sellers, Steady Course burst to the lead coming off the far turn and drew off to win by more than eight lengths.

"I was pleasantly surprised in how she finished," said Dallas Stewart, who trains Steady Course for Overbrook Farm.

It took Steady Course five attempts to win a maiden, though her connections had regarded her highly since last summer. A long stay in the maiden ranks gave Steady Course the seasoning to handle route racing - and perhaps high-class company - when the time was right.

"There's no handbook for these horses," Stewart said. "It all works out differently."