02/14/2002 12:00AM

'Baby' doesn't need the lead

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JAMAICA, N.Y. - Nobody was surprised when Nice Boots Baby won last month's Ruthless Stakes at Aqueduct. What may have been surprising was the manner in which she won.

After posting gate-to-wire victories in her first two starts, Nice Boots Baby was behind horses for the first time in the Ruthless. Last in a field of four approaching the quarter pole, Nice Boots Baby charged home four-wide under Mario Pino to win by 2 1/2 lengths.

"Pino and I both felt as impressive as she had been on the lead that it would it be deja vu all over again," said Tony Dutrow, the trainer and then-owner of Nice Boots Baby. He explained that Al Max Diner broke in on Nice Boots Baby and grabbed the lead.

"Nice Boots Baby was impressive, but Pino was just as impressive, taking a hold of her, letting her sit and take some dirt and not getting excited."

The victory kept Nice Boots Baby unbeaten in three starts and caught the eye of Will S. Farish Jr. of Lane's End Farm. Nine days after the Ruthless, Farish purchased Nice Boots Baby from Dutrow, retaining Dutrow as the trainer. Saturday, Nice Boots Baby will make her debut for Farish in the $75,000 Dearly Precious Stakes at Aqueduct.

"All three times we've run Nice Boots Baby, she was very impressive," said Dutrow, who seeks his fourth New York stakes of the year. "I don't think we've seen what she can actually do. She's got some experience with that race behind her and I think the best is yet to come."

Nice Boots Baby figures to be an odds-on choice under Mario Pino, who has been aboard all three of Dutrow's stakes winners. Dutrow also entered Touch Love in the Dearly Precious, but would run her only if Nice Boots Baby got sick before race day. Touch Love, who won the Grade 2 Schuylerville last summer, is being pointed to the Busher Stakes here on March 2.

For the third time in her four starts, Nice Boots Baby has drawn the rail. Provided she breaks cleanly, Nice Boots Baby looms the one to catch.

The main threat figures to be Proper Gamble, who finished second to Nice Boots Baby in the Ruthless though she was no match in the stretch. Proper Gamble was making her first start in two months and may be a little tighter for this.

Lost Expectations has an upset chance. She finished a solid second in an entry-level allowance race last out.

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