01/02/2003 1:00AM

Lady Tak her trainer's ace in Thelma


NEW ORLEANS - The one Fair Grounds horseman eager to take on the brilliant 3-year-old filly Lady Tak in the Thelma Stakes is the same one that trains her.

Five fillies were entered against Lady Tak in Saturday's $75,000 Thelma, and Valid Pulpit and Souris - like Lady Tak herself - are trained by Steve Asmussen. The standout of the Asmussen trio is obvious, and if Lady Tak continues to progress after smoking two Churchill Downs fields this past fall nobody will touch her in the Thelma.

Two other stakes winners, Allspice and Buffalo Jump, as well as Spring Rush, a Fair Grounds allowance winner, also were entered in the Thelma. But Asmussen, the nation's leading trainer by wins in 2002 and currently running away with the Fair Grounds trainer race, controls the shape of the race. As of Thursday he was unsure who besides Lady Tak actually would start in the Thelma and left open the option of scratching one of his other entrants.

Souris is a solid horse in her own right, having banked more than $150,000 in a six-start 2002 campaign, but on talent alone she can't hold a candle to Lady Tak, whom Asmussen has called "a freak." A $75,000 2-year-old auction purchase in April, Lady Tak didn't make her career debut until Oct. 29, when she won a maiden race at Churchill Downs by almost 12 lengths. Back a month later, Lady Tak made short work of a tough allowance field, winning by more than three lengths and displaying push-button acceleration.

The Asmussen-trained Lake Lady won last year's Thelma after showing vast talent late in her 2-year-old season, but Lady Tak may have even more ability. She is quick from the gate and quick into stride, but has relaxed well in both of her starts for jockey Donnie Meche. When Meche called on Lady Tak turning for home in her last start, she opened a clear lead in a matter of strides.

There are questions about how far Lady Tak will run, but they don't apply in the six-furlong Thelma. The distance issue this time is for Allspice, who won two straight in Chicago to end her 2-year-old campaign. Allspice also has shown exciting talent, but her future probably lies in two-turn races. She has never tried a distance shorter than seven furlongs.

Buffalo Jump had an excellent 2-year-old year in Canada, capping her season with a neck win in the $164,000 Glorious Song Stakes at Woodbine. But Buffalo Jump, like the other horses in the field, has never faced a buzz saw like Lady Tak.

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