04/26/2002 12:00AM

D'Amico confident his mount can take charge of Oaks


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Tony D'Amico knows that when Take Charge Lady runs Friday as the likely favorite in the Kentucky Oaks, she will be in far deeper water than in her first three starts this year.

In each of those races, she had very comfortable trips and coasted to easy victories. But that doesn't necessarily mean she won't enjoy another nice trip again.

"I don't think there's going to be much of a problem," D'Amico said after guiding Take Charge Lady through a sharp five-furlong breeze in 59.60 seconds Thursday morning. "She has tactical speed, but more importantly, she'll let me do what I want with her. The Ashland proved that."

In winning two stakes at Fair Grounds, Take Charge Lady, owned by Select Stable and trained by Ken McPeek, simply wired her opponents. And in her last start, the April 6 Ashland, she allowed one filly to forge to an early lead, then swept past from a garden spot.

In the Oaks, however, it seems more likely that her classier opposition will make her work harder from start to finish.

"You know she's going to be forwardly placed," said D'Amico. "Then if it's a matter of her getting eyeballed, I really think she'll relax if that's what I need. She's a gutsy little thing. She felt very comfortable to me this morning, and hopefully she'll be that way Friday."

With jockeys, these are the nine 3-year-old fillies considered definite for the 128th running of the $500,000, Grade 1 Oaks:

Bella Bellucci, Gary Stevens; Belterra, Jon Court; Habibti, Victor Espinoza; Imperial Gesture, Frankie Dettori; Ms Brookski, Jorge Chavez; Take Charge Lady, D'Amico; Take the Cake, Rene Douglas; Tempera, David Flores; and You, Jerry Bailey.

Woodford Reserve looking strong

The Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Turf Classic, to be run about an hour before the Kentucky Derby, is shaping up as probably the best turf race in North America so far this year.

Hap, Beat Hollow, and With Anticipation look like the favorites in a field of at least nine probables for the 1 1/8-mile Woodford Reserve. Also expected are Bach, Climate, Quiet Resolve, Sligo Bay, Touch of the Blues, and the defending champion, White Heart.

The Woodford Reserve is one of five stakes to precede the Derby on Saturday. On the Friday card, there are four stakes besides the Oaks. The Thursday stakes are the La Troienne, the Mamzelle, and the Hard Scuffle Steeplechase.

Turf route tops Sunday card

Three rich allowance races form the core of a 10-race program here Sunday, highlighted by the ninth race, a $57,200 turf route that drew such accomplished horses as Auction House, Glick, and Conserve among a full field of 10.

The seventh race, worth $48,800, looks just as compelling, with Package Store, having benefited from a return start at Keeneland for Tom Skiffington, facing off against Golden Dragon, whose two "down-the-hill" races at Santa Anita both resulted in runner-up finishes and triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures.

Golden Dragon "ran a couple of really sharp races in California," said Mike Puype, who trains the 4-year-old gelding for the Cobra Farm of Gary Biszantz.

Puype, a trainer since 1987, said he has begun taking on outside clients after training exclusively for Cobra in recent years. "We're not going to be dragging the stable back and forth anymore from California," said Puype, 35. "We're going to be staying year round in Kentucky from now on. It's not a breakup with Gary, by any means, but his operation is really expanding and has taken on a number of trainers all over the country."

A notable absentee from the Sunday card is jockey Pat Day, who will be at Sportsman's Park in Chicago to ride Pompeii in the Sixty Sails Handicap.

Albarado focused

With his first Keeneland riding crown in hand, Robby Albarado said he sure would like to be the leading rider at the 52-day Churchill Downs spring meet, too.

"I'm just overwhelmed by what I got done up at Keeneland," said Albarado, whose 26 wins were six more than Pat Day. "To beat Pat Day for leading rider . . . I guess I was on good horses, live horses," he said, adding that his agent, Lenny Pike Jr.," did a great job."

To win more races than Day at this meet will "take a lot of hard work and focus," said Albarado. "I read something the other day that said, 'Future rewards are gained through present discipline.' That's the approach I've got to take every day I come to work, because to be leading rider at the next meet, I've got to stay pumped up."

Albarado, 28, has been the leading rider at Fair Grounds, Oaklawn, Arlington, and elsewhere, but the Keeneland title was his first on the Kentucky circuit.

Congaree good-looking as ever

A gorgeous, well-developed, chestnut-colored colt wearing a Bob Baffert saddle towel stepped onto the track at Churchill Downs on Friday. He looked like Congaree, only bigger.

Maybe that's why Congaree did not make the work tab Friday, when he zipped five furlongs in, according to Baffert, in 58 seconds and change. He looks quite different from last year, when he was a wiry 3-year-old colt. Congaree is grown up, looking good.

"I wish I could change his tattoo number and run him in this year's Derby," Baffert said.

Congaree finished third in last year's Derby, and was third in the Preakness Stakes. He has not raced since injuring a knee in last summer's Jim Dandy Stakes at Saratoga. Congaree spent the winter in South Carolina, and only recently rejoined Baffert when the trainer sent a string of horses to Churchill Downs for the meet that began on Saturday.

"He came in pretty fit," Baffert said. "He could be ready in three weeks or a month." Baffert said he is considering races such as the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont Park on May 27, or the Stephen Foster Handicap on June 15 at Churchill, for immediate goals. Baffert said that if Congaree runs in the Stephen Foster, he would likely have one prep race.

Harlan's Holiday's halter aids charity

The halter of Kentucky Derby favorite Harlan's Holiday brought a winning bid of $8,000 Thursday night at the fourth annual Derby Preview Party, a benefit dinner and auction held at the Derby Museum.

Owner Jack Wolf and trainer Ken McPeek were at the dinner when they got an idea to go back to the barn, take the halter off Harlan's Holiday, clean it off, and bring it back to the auction to be sold. The halter will eventually go to the unnamed bidder, but first Harlan's Holiday will get to use it through the Triple Crown.

The proceeds from the dinner go to Wellspring, a local organization that provides transitional housing to mentally ill patients.

Sportscasters do their parts, too

Lexington radio sportscasters Tom Leach and Dave Baker parlayed a $1,000 bankroll at the Keeneland spring meet into about $3,500, which will go to the Central Kentucky Riding for the Handicapped.

Baker and Leach had a telephone-wagering account that they used after announcing their selections on the air each day. The big score came when Baker bet a winning $5 trifecta on the Elkhorn Stakes on Wednesday, resulting in a payoff of over $2,100.

"We're thrilled with what Dave did," said Keeneland spokesman Jim Williams. "Everyone wins because we've raised awareness about a worthwhile organization."

- additional reporting by Jay Privman