03/06/2004 1:00AM

Velasquez, Ashado on the money

Ashado with Cornelio Velazquez up wins the Fair Grounds Oaks on Saturday at Fair Grounds.

NEW ORLEANS - Cornelio Velasquez is a native of Panama, and as his star has risen in the universe of big-time jockeys, so has his command of the English language improved. This phrase Velasquez has down pat: "I thought at the top of the stretch she would win easy."

That is how Mr. Velasquez described Ashado's run Saturday in the $300,000 , and that is exactly how Ashado performed. Velasquez, sitting on a powder keg all the way around the track, found a spot for Ashado three paths wide at the top of the stretch, and Ashado cruised to a 3 3/4-length score over Victory U. S. A.

Ashado tracked moderate fractions of 23.91 seconds for a quarter-mile, 47.78 for a half, and 1:12.34 for six furlongs. That she was able to run the third-fastest Oaks in history, 1:43.07, attests to the strength of Ashado's performance.

Not that this run came out of the blue. Ashado, a Saint Ballado filly owned by Jack and Laurie Wolf, Paul Saylor, and Johns Martin, was one of the top 2-year-old fillies on the East Coast last year, winning the Schuylerville and the Grade 1 Spinaway at Saratoga. She made the transition from sprints to routes, running second to Halfbridled in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and finishing off her season with a game win in the Grade 2 Demoiselle.

Ashado wintered at the Palm Meadows training center, and wintered well. "She hasn't missed a beat from the Demoiselle," said trainer Todd Pletcher's traveling assistant, Michael McCarthy. "She's held her condition very well."

Ashado's excellent prerace bearing bore that out. Then she went and ran to her looks.

Quick Temper was the early leader, and her crafty rider, Larry Melancon, tried to back up the pace. He succeeded, but to no avail. Victory U. S. A. attacked first, displacing Quick Temper at about the quarter pole, but her rider, Corey Lanerie, was working hard to hold his spot. Not Velasquez, as Ashado loomed up and punched home with authority.

Victory U. S. A. was game for second, beating Shadow Cast to the wire by 1 1/4 lengths. Steady Course, Quick Temper, and Bending Strings completed the order of finish. Ashado paid $4.20 as the solid favorite.

McCarthy said Ashado, pending Pletcher's final decision, probably is headed to the

Grade 1 Ashland on April 3 at Keeneland, and she will be among the favorites there.

"She's a real nice filly," Velasquez said.

Right again.