04/04/2002 12:00AM

Both favorites seeking redemption

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - In the weeks following the Golden Rod Stakes last fall, trainer Ken McPeek came to believe that Take Charge Lady had not been 100 percent. But when the Grade 1 Ashland Stakes is run for the 65th time Saturday at Keeneland, a fully rejuvenated Take Charge Lady will be looking for vengeance against her Golden Rod conqueror, Belterra.

Take Charge Lady and are the solid favorites in a field of eight 3-year-old fillies entered in the traditional Keeneland stepping-stone to the Kentucky Oaks, which this year will be run May 3 at Churchill Downs. A victory by either would be highly logical, since both have been highly ranked within the division since last fall.

Take Charge Lady, owned by the Select Stable of Jerry and Feye Bach, captured the Alcibiades Stakes here last fall before heading to Belmont Park for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, which resulted in the worst performance of her career. She then finished second by 4 1/2 lengths in the Golden Rod at Churchill.

"She lost 70 pounds from the time she went to New York and back," said McPeek, who is based at Churchill. "We never found out if it was a bug or virus or anything at all, but in hindsight, she just wasn't herself when she ran in the Breeders' Cup and Golden Rod."

Conversely, for Belterra, the Golden Rod put an exclamation mark on a 3-for-3 season. But while Take Charge Lady has gone on to post two sensational stakes wins this season, both at Fair Grounds, Belterra's reputation has taken a hit: She finished third as an odds-on favorite last month in her only race so far at 3.

Carl Nafzger, who trains Belterra for former Maryland Jockey Club co-owner Bob Manfuso, said the season-opening defeat in the Bonnie Miss at Gulfstream is to be taken in context.

"I thought she ran real well, considering how speed held up that day," he said.

Nafzger also entered two less accomplished fillies, Take the Cake and Cordoba, but neither has the early speed to serve as "rabbits" to press Take Charge Lady. All three Nafzger horses will run as separate betting interests.

The other Ashland starters are Colonial Glitter, First Again, Whiletheiron'shot and Bronze Autumn.

The Ashland, which has been won by such standouts as Princess Rooney (1983), Go for Wand (1990), and Silverbulletday (1999), is carded as the eighth of nine Saturday races.

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