05/19/2004 11:00PM

Lady Tak more vulnerable than she looks on surface


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Lady Tak has won 7 of 13 races, including the Grade 1 Test. But I am betting victory No. 8 will not come Saturday in the Winning Colors Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Lady Tak was certainly one of the best 3-year-old fillies of last year. Besides winning the Test at Saratoga, she also won three stakes at Fair Grounds and ran second in both the Gazelle and the Ashland Stakes.

Those achievements are not lost on me. It is her form that leads me to believe she could be upset at a short price.

After an authoritative score in the Test last summer, she blew a clear lead in the Gazelle, running second to longshot Buy the Sport. She then followed that race by finishing last of seven in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.

Racing at 1 1/8 miles in both the Gazelle and Distaff - a distance seemingly beyond her best - she had an excuse.

Freshened over the winter, she seemed in position to take the seven-furlong Madison Stakes at Keeneland in April. Instead, she came unglued, finishing last of six.

Rather than run Lady Tak in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff on the Derby undercard, trainer Steve Asmussen opted for a confidence-building allowance race. Brought back in a money allowance at Churchill Downs April 24, she raced uncontested on the lead and cruised to a two-length victory.

On the basis of that win, many will assume she is back on her game. Perhaps that is a correct assumption. Perhaps not.

My take on her recent allowance win was that she could not have lost given the way the race unfolded. Facing no early pressure, she crawled in the early stages with her ears pricked, and understandably scored a comfortable two-length victory.

Although she ran quickly - covering six furlongs in 1:09.89 and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 105 - I was surprised not to see her draw away from her outclassed opponents in the stretch. Three lengths clear heading into the lane, she ended up winning by two lengths over stablemate Souris, who seemingly was in the race to help make it go with a short field.

Lady Tak outran some other nice fillies - including Golden Marlin, a Grade 3 stakes winner who returned to win a money allowance at Churchill on Wednesday. Golden Marlin had not run since the fall, however, and did not figure to produce her best race off a lengthy layoff.

Lady Tak won with a perfect trip. Her first quarter in 22.50 seconds was remarkably slow for an upper-level allowance. Four of the five other six-furlong races on the April 24 card were run with first quarters in less than 22 seconds. The only race that wasn't - a $5,000 claimer - was run with an opening fraction of 22.05 seconds - more than two-fifths faster than the opening fraction Lady Tak set.

Saturday's Winning Colors also appears short on speed - a fact that concerns me in taking a stand against her. Lady Tak figures to set a slow pace, or at the very least be pressing Surf N Sand, the only other significant speed, to her inside.

Nevertheless, I will try to beat her in the exotics with two horses, Put Me In and Ebony Breeze.

Put Me In, a winner of 7 of 14 races, blossomed into a crack sprinter this winter at Fair Grounds. A 4-year-old daughter of Take Me Out, she took the Leggio Memorial Handicap there in a race moved from turf to dirt, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 106, and later in the meet won the Marie Krantz Memorial, a $75,000 stakes race.

It was her last race, a loss, that makes her my top choice in the Winning Colors. Racing on turf, a surface on which most offspring of Take Me Out struggle, she came within a half-length of stakes winners Dyna Da Wyna and Boozin' Susan when she finished third in the 5 1/2-furlong Stravinsky Stakes April 17 at Keeneland.

When last moved from turf to dirt, she won the Leggio - at 22-1. She also loves the Churchill Downs main track, having won 2 of 3 races there.

Ebony Breeze, a dual graded stakes winner, will also be included in my wagers. Fourth or better in all 15 of her starts, she is 5-5-2 in 13 dirt races - all against good company. Since she won a maiden race in late 2002, eight of her 10 races have been in stakes.

Expected to win each of her first two races of the year, she disappointed to some extent, finishing second both times. Those efforts should set her up well for this race, and trainer Bill Mott is in the midst of an outstanding meet.

These two horses do not have the resume of Lady Tak, but they offer something she does not: attractive odds. Whether they have the class to take the Winning Colors remains to be seen, but with Lady Tak likely starting as a short-priced favorite, the gamble seems worth the risk.