04/01/2003 12:00AM

Stars are lining up for Ashland

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - Crucial prep races for the Kentucky Derby and Oaks, and perhaps the deepest jockey colony in track history are just some of the treats awaiting racing fans at Keeneland Race Course, where a 15-day meet opens Friday.

Opening weekend will be highlighted by the $500,000 Ashland Stakes on Saturday, and the meet's showcase, the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, will follow a week later. The Grade 1 Ashland has developed into a top prep for the Kentucky Oaks, while the Grade 1 Blue Grass long has been a key prep for the Kentucky Derby.

The Ashland is shaping up as easily the best race so far this year for 3-year-old fillies in North America. Keeneland officials are expecting a field of at least seven for the 1 1/16-mile race, with the unbeaten Lady Tak foremost among the probable starters. Others likely to run are Elloluv, Ivanavinalot, Yell, Holiday Lady, Allspice, and Unbridled Femme.

The Ashland is sandwiched on opening weekend between a pair of Grade 3, $100,000 stakes for 3-year-olds: the Transylvania, a 1 1/8-mile turf race, is the opening-day feature, and the Lafayette, a seven-furlong dirt race, is the richest race Sunday. Remind, a promising Claiborne Farm colt, could be the favorite in the Transylvania. Quick Draw, perhaps the best and last chance for trainer D. Wayne Lukas to get a horse to the Derby, rates among the favorites for the Lafayette.

Dan Bork, Keeneland's stakes coordinator, said Tuesday that the Blue Grass figures to have at least six starters, although the connections of at least three other horses also have the 1 1/8-mile race under serious consideration. Peace Rules and Badge of Silver are the likely Blue Grass favorites in a field also expected to get Brancusi, Offlee Wild, Crowned Dancer, and Lots of Sizzle. Possible starters include Region of Merit, Lion Tamer, and Man Among Men.

Crowned Dancer, trained by Kentucky newcomer Chris Paasch, tuned up Tuesday for the Blue Grass with a six-furlong workout in 1:13.40 over a fast Keeneland surface.

From the eight programs that follow the Blue Grass, the most important race is another one for potential Derby horses: the $325,000 Coolmore Lexington Stakes on April 19. Midas Eyes, the runaway winner of the Swale Stakes for trainer Bobby Frankel, is expected to be a solid favorite in the 1 1/16-mile Lexington.

Frankel also has decided on the $125,000 Madison Stakes, a seven-furlong race on Wednesday, April 9, as the comeback spot for You, one of the top 3-year-old fillies of 2002.

As for the jockey colony, people already are calling it quite possibly the deepest ever at Keeneland. Besides Pat Day, who has won a record 20 meet titles here, the jockeys expected to ride on a regular basis include Jerry Bailey, Kent Desormeaux, Robby Albarado, Jose Santos, Mark Guidry, Cornelio Velasquez, Jason Lumpkins, and Calvin Borel.

As has become custom every spring at Keeneland, every program will include at least one stakes race worth a minimum of $100,000. Purses will average just over $600,000 per day, said Beasley.