06/02/2005 12:00AM

'Tis the season for Shaconage


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Shaconage loves Churchill Downs in the springtime, and Churchill Downs loves Shaconage.

At least that's what trainer Mitch Shirota would like to believe. Shaconage has won 5 times in her 23-race career, and by far her two biggest triumphs came here at the 2004 spring meet, when she won the Distaff Turf Mile and Locust Grove, both Grade 3 handicaps.

Saturday, when she goes as one of the favorites in the $150,000 Mint Julep Handicap, Shaconage will be gunning for a third Grade 3 victory at Churchill.

Winning the Distaff Turf Mile on the Kentucky Derby undercard "was really a thrill," said Shirota, a former jockey who began training in the late 1970's. "I'd been here for 25 years and had never won a stake. Then to come back and win another one was even more of a thrill."

, with Mike Smith to ride, will break from post 6 in the 29th running of the Mint Julep, a 1 1/16-mile turf race that drew seven fillies and mares. It is carded as the ninth of 10 races on a Saturday program that starts at 1:15 p.m. Eastern.

A gray El Prado mare bred and owned by Andrena Van Doren, Shaconage enters off a third-place finish behind Miss Terrible and Sand Springs in the Distaff Turf Mile on May 7. Last of seven early, Shaconage rallied to be beaten just a length by the winner despite a slow early pace.

"I'd like to know what she ran the last quarter in," said Shirota.

Besides Shaconage, other contenders in the Mint Julep include the Jonathan Sheppard-trained , winner of her last two starts; Cape Town Lass, who enters in the best form of her career; and Delta Princess, a steady mare with nearly $500,000 in career earnings.

The rest of the field is Erhu, , and Sparking Humor.

Several horses who might have played a major part in the Mint Julep outcome were not entered, including Sister Swank, who will not be cleared from quarantine until Sunday, and Angela's Love, who "had a little problem, so we had to pass," said trainer Dale Romans. "We're shooting for the Locust Grove" on July 2.

The Saturday card also includes three allowances (races 3, 4, 7) and ends with a 4 1/2-furlong maiden race for 2-year-olds.

The 2004 Mint Julep was won with a searing late run by Stay Forever, a Florida shipper trained by Marty Wolfson.