03/06/2003 12:00AM

Lady Tak: Bargain buy, priceless potential

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NEW ORLEANS - The question has been posed to trainer Steve Asmussen many times this winter: How's Lady Tak? His answer has never varied: "She's awesome."

Who could argue? Lady Tak has won all four of her starts by an average of 5 1/2 lengths. She won her debut last fall at Churchill by almost 12, and captured stakes races in her last two starts by a combined eight lengths, including effectively carrying her brilliant speed around two turns in the Jan. 26 Tiffany Lass Stakes. Asmussen rested Lady Tak during February, and she comes into Saturday's $350,000, Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks as sharp as - a Tak.

Owned by the Heiligbrodt Racing Stable, Lady Tak has never faced a serious challenge, in a morning workout or in a race. A non-descript chestnut filly by the lesser-known stallion Mutakkdim, Lady Tak has breathtaking acceleration, the quickest turn of foot Asmussen has ever seen first hand.

"I've never had anything that could work like her," Asmussen said. "I've never worked her with the same horses two weeks in a row. I'd think that wouldn't be very good therapy for the others. The rider would turn her head loose for one little second and she'd be ahead of them."

Asmussen first saw Lady Tak last April, when she was being sold at Keeneland's 2-year-old in training sale. Lady Tak breezed an eighth of a mile in just over 10 seconds, but it was her gallop-out after the work that was especially impressive. Clockers caught Lady Tak running three furlongs in 33 seconds and change, a remarkably fast time.

"The track was lightning fast, and everything was working fast there," said Asmussen. "But still . . . "

Lady Tak brought a top bid of $75,000, though Bob Cunningham, the man who sold her, wondered what price Lady Tak would have fetched with a fancy pedigree.

"I did think she was worth a lot more," Cunningham said.

Cunningham has bought yearlings at auction and sold them as 2-year-olds - a practice known as pinhooking - for decades. At the Keeneland September yearling sale of 2001, Cunningham purchased Lady Tak in partnership with his children. "My kids were always wanting to pinhook with me, so I found this horse for them," Cunningham said.

He found them a bargain. Lady Tak had neither the pedigree nor the obvious physical tools to command attention at the massive sale, and Cunningham got her for only $7,500.

"Lots of times, I'll end up with horses that are a little bit on the smaller side," said Cunningham. "I buy all on looks. I don't even look at the pedigree until I've seen the conformation. She was a very nice-looking filly, though the sire wasn't hot at the time."

Cunningham takes his yearlings back to his farm in Illinois, where they're broken to saddle and started on a breezing program. Lady Tak's program mainly was geared around holding her back.

"I knew the first time I breezed her that I had the goods," Cunningham said, "and I never let her run after that. The first time she really got to run was at the sale."

Lady Tak's career hiccupped shortly after she came into Asmussen's barn. Asmussen said he worked the filly once and saw that "it didn't look like her shin was going to hold." Lady Tak went to Florida to grow up, and when she came back to the racetrack in August, she was the same freakishly fast horse.

"Do I worry about her being too sharp? Yes, I always worry about it," Asmussen said. "She's extremely competitive, and I was worried about her first two-turn race, but she handled it fine. I suppose they could gallop the run out of her at some distance. I just hope it's not a mile and a sixteenth on Saturday."

Asmussen has had this kind of horse before, exceptionally fast, precocious - and perhaps limited in stamina. Just last year, Asmussen stretched out Lake Lady, a fast Salt Lake filly, and she won the Tiffany Lass, was off the board in the Silverbulletday, and finished second in the Fair Grounds Oaks. His plan deviated this season with his decision to pass the Silverbulletday and bring Lady Tak into the Oaks off only works.

Asmussen concedes Lady Tak could run up against distance limitations at some point, but he was pleased with her first try at two turns and expects her to rate comfortably on Saturday. And if somebody can outrun her in the Oaks, well, there's a first time for everything.