09/12/2002 12:00AM

Give Minister's Baby an upset shot

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ELMONT, N.Y. - Does Minister's Baby, trained by Ken McPeek, have a chance to upset Saturday's $300,000 Ruffian Handicap for fillies and mares, the highlight of an outstanding program at Belmont Park?

She has never raced at Belmont and will be a big price, of course. But she won't be 70-1, which was Sarava's price when McPeek saddled him to upset the Belmont Stakes in spring. Minister's Baby won her last start impressively at Ellis Park, earning an eye-catching Beyer Figure of 109 for her performance in the Gardenia Handicap. She also won the Iowa Distaff Stakes at Prairie Meadows and comes to the Ruffian in peak form.

One of the most important aspects of training, the late Jimmy Jones emphasized frequently, is to know your horse. When McPeek took over the training of Minister's Baby at the end of last season, he learned that she wanted plenty of time between races, she wanted to be schooled extensively in the paddock at tracks she visited, and she needed greater strength.

"It was important not only to increase her weight, but to keep the extra weight on her while she raced," McPeek said the other day. "Once we learned the most effective means to do that, she seemed to flourish. She has won four out of six this season and developed into a very nice filly."

Minister's Baby is owned by the Lucky Seven Stable representing the Mackin family of Louisville, Ky. They have five horses in training with McPeek, purchased another four yearlings at Keeneland this week, and plan to have a nice stable for the sport they have come to enjoy.

McPeek, whose public stable has earned more than $5 million this year to date, is among the national leaders. For the first time he has 20 horses stabled at Belmont Park this fall and hopes to be a regular on the circuit. He plans to expand his stable and will leave a unit to race in New York over the winter while he takes the main division to Florida, returning to Belmont in the spring.

McPeek is enjoying an outstanding season with such horses as Sarava, Harlan's Holiday, Repent, and Take Charge Lady.

Minister's Baby appears to have the qualifications to become another headliner. When given sufficient time between races and ample familiarization with her surroundings, she can be very effective. She has been at Belmont for several weeks now and seems to indicate that she is at home and enjoying her surroundings. The Ruffian has a strong cast, but Minister's Baby may join the club this weekend.

Volponi still maturing

Several years ago, Hall of Fame trainer Phil Johnson attended the Saratoga sales and purchased a New York-bred filly named Prom Knight for $8,000.

It was a happy transaction. Prom Knight ran only once, chipped a knee, and never ran again. Bred to Cryptoclearance, she produced a filly named Fickle Friends, a stakes winner of more than $250,000. She is also the dam of Volponi, who may be the one to beat at Belmont Park on Saturday in the $200,000 Belmont Breeders' Cup Handicap on the turf at nine furlongs.

"Volponi is a very versatile horse," Johnson said the other day. "He can handle all the middle distances and has won stakes on dirt and grass. We plan to race him again next season and will turn him out for the winter with the hope that he continues to mature."

Volponi underlined his quality with strong performances at Saratoga in both the Bernard Baruch at nine furlongs and the Sword Dancer at 12 furlongs. Competing against proven stakes horses such as With Anticipation, Denon, Del Mar Show, and Forbidden Apple, he got a piece of the purse in both features and didn't miss by much. His opponents had an edge in maturity, but Johnson is hopeful he will catch up next year. In the meantime, he is enjoying another good season for the stable owned by Johnson's family and some close friends.