04/03/2002 1:00AM

D'Amico still sitting pretty on Take Charge Lady


LEXINGTON, Ky. - Down does not necessarily mean out. Or off.

Veteran jockey Tony D'Amico has been taken off three Kentucky Derby hopefuls but still will be aboard Take Charge Lady when the filly shoots for her first Grade 1 victory Saturday in the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland.

"I was fired off more horses in a week than most guys in a year," D'Amico said with a grin, acknowledging the rapid-fire manner in which he lost Derby contenders Repent and - both trained by Ken McPeek - and Perfect Drift, the eventual Lane's End Spiral Stakes winner, last month. "Sure, it's been tough, but I'm still here doing my job."

If Take Charge Lady, trained by McPeek, can win the $500,000 Ashland in what is shaping up as a short field, then D'Amico will have a well-paying job at that. Take Charge Lady will vie for favoritism with Belterra in a field of 3-year-old fillies that also will include Bronze Autumn, Take the Cake, and possibly Colonial Glitter.

Take Charge Lady, winner of the Alcibiades last fall at Keeneland, "has done everything so easily" in winning her first two starts this year, said D'Amico. "She's really improved as a 3-year-old."

D'Amico has steadfastly maintained that he has been "well-taken-care-of and treated well" by McPeek and the owners of Repent and Harlan's Holiday since losing the mounts on both colts. In fact, D'Amico has maintained such a solid relationship with McPeek that the jockey was aboard Florida Derby winner Harlan's Holiday when the colt worked five furlongs Wednesday in 59.80 seconds at Churchill Downs..

"He was very relaxed," said D'Amico. "He's maturing and learning, just like he's supposed to. He's on his way."

Harlan's Holiday is the likely favorite for the meet's highlight, the $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes next Saturday. As of Wednesday, his only confirmed opponents were Booklet, Azillion, and Bunk N Ted. One colt who had been committed to the Blue Grass but now is questionable is Request for Parole. His trainer, Steve Margolis, said he was not fully satisfied with how the colt exited his close third-place finish in the March 23 Lane's End Spiral Stakes.

"He left some feed in his tub a couple of nights and just didn't come back full of himself," said Margolis. "Nothing's really wrong, but I want to go day-by-day with him before we commit to the Blue Grass. We'll probably decide something early next week."

Dream Run to go in Carter

Dream Run, winner of the Grade 2 Gulfstream Sprint Championship in his last start, will run next in the Grade 1 Carter Handicap at Aqueduct on April 13, instead of the Grade 2 Commonwealth Breeders' Cup at Keeneland the following day.

Dream Run, owned by Boston resident Jack Murphy, is based at Churchill Downs with trainer Paul McGee.

Another top McGee sprinter, Bet on Sunshine, is working up to his 10-year-old debut, which is expected to come early next month at Churchill. Bet on Sunshine breezed a half-mile Wednesday at Churchill in 49 seconds.

Cashel Castle heads Lafayette

Dan Bork, Keeneland's stakes coordinator, said he expects a medium-sized field, led by unbeaten , for the Sunday feature, the $100,000 Lafayette Stakes for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs.

Other probables include Cicero Grimes, Laffit, Sky Terrace, and the D. Wayne Lukas-trained Proud Citizen.

O'Callaghan figuring out Ms Brookski

Ms Brookski, winner of the Feb. 24 Davona Dale at Gulfstream, is now being trained at Churchill by Niall O'Callaghan. The filly was purchased last month by Gary Tanaka after having been co-owned and trained by Reed Combest.

O'Callaghan said he is still getting to know Ms Brookski. "I don't know where she'll run next," he said, adding the May 3 Kentucky Oaks would be given "strong consideration."

Huffman upbeat in new post

For the first time since Secretariat was a 3-year-old, there is someone other than Howard Battle manning the position of Keeneland racing secretary.

Ben Huffman, who was announced as Battle's replacement last year, said he was eager to get the meet under way. "We've got a lot of top horses and horsemen ready to run here, so it should be a great meet," said Huffman, 34.

Battle, the racing secretary since 1973, is in semi-retirement after having undergone surgery for stomach cancer early last year.

Gold at end of stretch

For two of the most prominent owners in Keeneland history, this spring could be a milestone if either can win a graded stakes at the meet. Claiborne Farm would earn a gold bowl, and Lane's End Farm would earn a gold pitcher.

And the meaning of this?

It's apparently quite complicated. Through the years, Keeneland has awarded gold cups, trays, pitchers, and bowls after an owner has won a certain number of graded stakes at Keeneland. But the criteria have periodically changed as the number of graded stakes at the meet has proliferated.

Only two owners have ever won a pitcher - Claiborne and the now-defunct Bwamazon Farm. With 23 stakes wins, either solo or in partnership, Claiborne is the all-time Keeneland leader.

Barn loses a veteran

Ken McPeek suffered a personal loss last week when his 13-year-old dog, Blinkers, was euthanized. Blinkers, a friendly black labrador, had been a mainstay at McPeek's barn until recent years and was the occasional subject of media features, especially when McPeek was in the spotlight in the mid-1990's with former stable star Tejano Run.

"I had him since he was this big," said McPeek, cupping his hands closely together. "He stopped eating, so we finally had to put him to sleep. I lost a good friend."

* De Bertie, scratched as the likely favorite from the Fairway Fun last weekend at Turfway Park, will run next in the April 18 Doubledogdare Stakes, said trainer Steve Flint.

* For the first time, Keeneland is offering a daily online handicapping contest, with a first prize of $3,000. For more information, log on to www.keeneland.com.