10/17/2002 11:00PM

BC Countdown - Distaff: Take Charge Lady running right on time

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ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Earlier this year, Take Charge Lady was so highly regarded that she went off as the favorite in the Kentucky Oaks, in which she finished second. But after a subsequent victory by Take Charge Lady three weeks later, trainer Ken McPeek decided to give her a break, even though she appeared, on paper, to be in peak form.

The idea, McPeek said then, was to point for the major fall races, particularly the Spinster Stakes at Keeneland and the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Arlington Park. So far, the plan has been nearly flawless. Take Charge Lady comes off a powerful victory in the Spinster, the fifth time in seven races this year that she has earned a Beyer Speed Figure of at least 107, and McPeek believes she is capable of defeating Azeri and the rest of the star-studded field in next Saturday's Distaff.

"She had run five bang-up races at the beginning of the year," McPeek said Friday from Churchill Downs, where Take Charge Lady was scheduled to work on Saturday. "I was almost looking for an excuse to give her a rest and bring her back in the fall, and when I drew some blood on her at the end of May, she was dehydrated. Why press on when the long-term goal was, one, the Spinster, and two, the Distaff? She's not a filly that carries a lot of excess weight. You can tap her out if you're not careful, especially in the heat."

Take Charge Lady - who weighs approximately 1,050 pounds, according to McPeek - was off from May until September, when she returned in the Gazelle Handicap at Belmont Park. She was entered against the speedy Imperial Gesture. Fearful of having Take Charge Lady get caught in a speed duel, and desirous of getting her to learn to rate, McPeek instructed jockey Edgar Prado to not challenge Imperial Gesture if the pace was hot. It was a gamble, since Take Charge Lady had to that point been a confirmed front-runner.

"That probably cost her the Gazelle," McPeek said. "But I wasn't interested in getting in a speed duel with Imperial Gesture, and we felt that if she was going to win the Distaff, she had to learn how to rate."

Imperial Gesture led from start to finish, with Take Charge Lady second. That race, however, proved the ideal prep for the Spinster, which might have been Take Charge Lady's finest performance. It was her first start against older horses. She sat comfortably in third during the early going, then came home smartly along the rail to win going away by 2 1/2 lengths.

"She put it together in the Spinster," McPeek said.

Take Charge Lady has been among the most consistent of this year's crop of 3-year-old fillies. In seven starts this year, she has five wins and two seconds, giving her an overall record of eight victories from 12 starts. A daughter of Dehere, she is owned by the Select Stable of Jerry and Feye Bach, who also campaigned the top 3-year-old colt Repent.

* The Distaff field is Azeri (Mike Smith riding), Farda Amiga (Pat Day), Imperial Gesture (Jerry Bailey), Mandy's Gold (Jose Santos), Starrer (Patrick Valenzuela), Summer Colony (John Velazquez), Take Charge Lady (Prado), and Two Item Limit (Rene Douglas).