06/03/2002 11:00PM

Entry box contains two surprises


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - What looked like a run-of-the-mill allowance race in the Churchill Downs condition book assumed far greater significance when entries were taken Tuesday morning for what should easily be the highlight of the Thursday card.

Not only did Bob Baffert enter the promising Argentine filly Netherland, but Carl Nafzger decided it was about time to run Belterra. So when the overnight was released for the 10-race Thursday card, there they were in the same race, the ninth: Netherland in post 10 with Pat Day to ride, and Belterra in post 6 with regular rider Jon Court.

The seven-furlong feature carries a three-other-than allowance condition and a $58,500 purse.

Netherland, owned by Alan Gilbert and Mike Pegram, came to Kentucky with a lofty reputation. Even when she made her U.S. debut in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff on the May 4 Kentucky Derby undercard, she was sent away fourth choice. Although she failed to finish in the money, she did have some traffic trouble, and surely many horseplayers will be willing to give her that one race, especially with Day taking the ride.

Belterra, owned by Bob Manfuso, was a superstar in the making after winning all three of her starts last year. But she finished third in her first two starts at 3, and after undergoing throat surgery April 8, Nafzger decided not to run her in what had been a long-term target, the Kentucky Oaks.

Satisfied that she finally has come back to herself, especially in light of a sharp breeze here last week, Nafzger has decided to send out Belterra for her first start since the April 6 Ashland Stakes. If she runs well, Belterra could make her next start in the Grade 1 Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont June 29.

Eight other fillies and mares were entered in the feature, which is one of three allowances on the card. Twilight first post is 3:10 p.m. Eastern.

* Congaree worked five furlongs in 1:01 Tuesday at Churchill. Baffert said afterward that he still has not decided on whether the Stephen Foster at Churchill or the Californian Stakes at Hollywood Park will be the colt's next start. Both are to be run June 15, the same day Hollywood Park will give away Bob Baffert bobblehead dolls as a promotion.

* Windward Passage and Mr. Mellon appear to be the top horses for the lone stakes of the coming weekend here, the $250,000 Jefferson Cup on Saturday. Other 3-year-olds possible for the 1 1/8-mile turf race include February Storm, Grey Beard, Missme, Orchard Park, Peekskill, and Quest Star.