In addition to being the first Grade I race of Keeneland's Spring Meet, the $500,000 Central Bank Ashland Stakes on Saturday is also a guaranteed ticket into the Kentucky Oaks for one of its 13 entrants.
But Testa Rossi, who is expected to be the favorite, will probably take the 'Thanks, but no thanks' approach to the filly classic even with a win Saturday. Her connections are looking at the 11⁄16-mile Ashland as a steppingstone toward what they hope is her ascent in the turf female ranks.
Eight starts into her career, Testa Rossi has rarely disappointed. She has won five races including her most recent victory in the Grade III Florida Oaks on the turf at Tampa Bay Downs on March 8.
The chestnut filly demonstrated such ability shortly after coming over from France and heading to the barn of trainer Chad Brown. In her first outing stateside, she wowed observers with her closing kick, coming from last in an 11-horse field to take the Grade III Miss Grillo Stakes by a nose at Belmont Park last October.
While Saturday's Ashland Stakes over the Keeneland Polytrack offers 100 qualifying points for the winner toward the Kentucky Oaks, Brown said he isn't thinking of taking Testa Rossi out of her grass comfort zone anytime soon.
"I'm not thinking dirt with her," Brown said. "I'll be grateful enough if she handles synthetic, She's never had any experience on it before this week. But with the synthetic tracks having a history of grass horses running well on them, it's a lot of money, a Grade I and I don't really have another race for her right now. And she's ready to run."
Owned by James Covello, Thomas Coleman and Mike Dohenney, Testa Rossi nearly pulled off another come-from-the-clouds victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf last November, rallying from 14th to finish second behind Chriselliam.
Her Florida Oaks win flaunted a slightly different dimension as she rated midpack under jockey Jose Lezcano and still drew off for a 31/2-length win. Having drawn post No. 6 for the Ashland, Lezcano will likely have his choice of strategies this time as well.
"Jose said in the paddock (of the Florida Oaks) that now that she has had some racing in America, I think she can lay closer if you want," Brown said. "So I left it up to him and he sat a close trip and finished strong still.
"Overall, she is a solid horse. From age 2 to 3 she's done the things you like to see with your better horses. She's gotten bigger and stronger, she's really sprouted up."
The only starter in the field with stakes experience on Keeneland's main track is Rosalind, trained by Ken McPeek. She was second in last fall's Grade I Darley Alcibiades prior to finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Rosalind will break from post position eight and be ridden by Joel Rosario.
Alicia Wincze Hughes: (859) 231-1676. Blog: horseracing.bloginky.com. Twitter: @horseracinghl.