03/04/2002 12:00AM

Belterra: Bonnie Miss or bust

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - "It's a long year and we've got to get started somewhere."

That's the standard line most trainers give the press when bringing a stakes horse back off a layoff in the early part of the season. The idea is, the horse won't be going into its first race cranked up for its best effort right off the bench.

But trainer Carl Nafzger has other ideas for his undefeated 3-year-old filly Belterra when she makes her anticipated 2002 debut at Gulfstream in the $250,000, Grade 2 Bonnie Miss Stakes on March 15.

"I'm not training her to get a race into her in the Bonnie Miss. If that was my intention I'd run her in an allowance race first time back," Nafzger said shortly after Belterra worked six furlongs from the gate in an eye-catching 1:12.60 here Monday morning. "We're going into the Bonnie Miss to win the race."

Belterra won all three of her starts as a 2-year-old, including the Grade 2 Golden Rod Stakes in which she easily defeated Take Charge Lady by 4 1/2 widening lengths. Take Charge Lady flattered that performance when she opened her 3-year-old campaign with an even easier 8 1/2-length victory in the Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds.

"She's right on schedule for the Bonnie Miss," Nafzger said of Belterra. "Today was her most serious work yet. That's why I had her go from the gate. They tend to get a little sharper work when breaking out of the gate, especially if they're in there with a few other horses. And we needed a serious work like this morning since we're coming into the Bonnie Miss off works."

Like every trainer with a good 3-year-old filly on this coast, Nafzger's major goal during the opening half of the season will be the Kentucky Oaks.

"We'll see how she does in the Bonnie Miss then turn our attention to what lies ahead," said Nafzger. "If all goes well, we'll do like everybody else and look at the Ashland next." The Ashland at Keeneland is on April 6.

While Belterra continues to train well, Nafzger's top 3-year-old male prospect, Flying Free, has not been to the track in more than a week after spiking a fever that persisted for several days. Flying Free was a game maiden winner going six furlongs on Jan. 5. He then turned in a very promising two-turn debut three weeks later when finishing third behind Florida Derby contender High Star, despite a poor start.

"I was planning to run him in the Swale, but he's missed too much time to make the race now," said Nafzger. "He's been healthy for the last 72 hours and it looks like we've gotten out of this thing without it getting to his lungs. I was really impressed with his two-turn race. Not only did he break slow but he blew a shoe, too. I don't know if he's stakes caliber yet, but Nick [Zito]'s horse" - High Star - "is a tester and if he can play with him, I think I've got a chance to have a good horse."

Florida Derby looming

High Star was one of several Florida Derby candidates to work on Monday, breezing five furlongs in 1:00.80. Stephentown went the same distance in 1:02.40, while up at Payson Park, Political Attack worked five-eighths in 1:03.30.

Personal Reward, still listed as a possible Florida Derby starter by trainer Mark Hennig, worked five furlongs in 1:00 on Sunday.

Harlan's Holiday, who will likely start as the co-choice along with his arch rival Booklet in the Florida Derby, will work again on Wednesday.

Reinstedler was pleased with Stephentown's work after which he pronounced his colt a definite starter in the Florida Derby.

Improving Zito charges

High Star is not the only 3-year-old who has made steady improvement for Zito here this winter. American Style, who like High Star is owned by the Buckram Oak Stable, was an impressive winner of his two-turn debut last month. He also worked here Monday, going five furlongs in 1:01.

On Saturday Zito sent out Straight Gin, owned by Marylou Whitney, to win his second straight race. A son of Kentucky Derby winner Go for Gin, Straight Gin outgamed Marasca by three-quarters of a length following a stretch long duel.

Monday AM action

Other notables on the Monday morning work tab included the Shug McGaughey pair of Cat Cay (threeeighths in 37 seconds) and Baseball Champion (half-mile in 50 seconds); Forest Heiress (five furlongs in 1:00); Honorifico (five furlongs in 1:01); Invisible Ink (five furlongs in 1:01.80); and Rize (five furlongs in 1:03).

Rize, who was placed third following the disqualification of Red Bullet in the Grade 1 Donn Handicap, will make his next start in Sunday's $100,000 Creme Fraiche Handicap.

"After he ran so well in the Donn Handicap, I was pointing him for the Gulfstream Park Handicap," trainer Norman Pointer said. "But he's so sharp I don't think I can wait that long. The Creme Fraiche fits him, so I think I'll run him in there instead."

Baseball Champion, an easy six-length allowance winner on Feb. 23, is also nominated for the Creme Fraiche, but McGaughey said he will look for another allowance spot for the lightly raced 4-year-old's next start.

"If he were to run good next time then I'd consider the possibility of trying him in the Gulfstream Park Handicap," said McGaughey.

Cat Cay, who ran down Raging Fever to capture the Shirley Jones Handicap on Feb. 15, will make her next start in Aqueduct's Distaff Breeders' Cup Handicap on March 30.

* Jockey Manny Aguilar missed nearly a month of the meet because of injuries suffered when he was unseated after his mount, Halo Reality, clipped heels during the running of the Escena Stakes on Jan. 11. Aguilar proved he is back in top form by winning three of the first four races on Monday's card, including both ends of a $328.20 daily double with longshots Little Lake Weir and Nautical Noah, both trained by Fred Warren.

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