11/22/2001 12:00AM

Nafzger reserving judgment on Belterra

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - For a man who gets close to his horses, this has been a tough year for veteran trainer Carl Nafzger.

Nafzger not only endured the death of his 1998 champion filly, Banshee Breeze, early this year, but also was deeply saddened by the death last month of Unbridled, the great racehorse and stallion who helped Nafzger win his only Eclipse Award as top trainer by capturing the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic in 1990.

The temptation, then, is for Nafzger to go looking to quickly fill the void. The temptation is for him to begin believing that Belterra, a 2-year-old Unbridled filly who has been sensational in winning her first two starts, is the salve for his emotional wounds.

Not so fast, he says.

"I'd like for her to be the one," said Nafzger. "But right now it's too early. She's a good filly, but I wouldn't want to put that kind of pressure on her. When you're talking about those other two horses, you're talking champions. Those are some awfully big shoes to step into."

Nevertheless, Nafzger obviously is hoping that Belterra will begin to fill those shoes Saturday when she puts her unbeaten record on the line in the 58th running of the $200,000, Grade 2 Golden Rod Stakes. Belterra, a winner of a Keeneland maiden race and a Churchill allowance race in her only two starts, could be a slight favorite over the more experienced Take Charge Lady in a field of six 2-year-old fillies.

Nafzger believes that Take Charge Lady, winner of the Alcibiades Stakes and sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies in her last start for trainer Ken McPeek, should provide a fair gauge as to what kind of future Belterra has.

"Any time a horse wins two in a row from my barn to start their career, the chances are that the horse is going to be a real nice one," he said. "But we're hooking experience Saturday in Kenny's filly, and we're also trying two turns for the first time. Yes, she's been fabulous so far, but this is a new level we're trying Saturday."

Belterra, a Maryland-bred owned by Bob Manfuso, will start from post 6 when ridden by Jon Court in the 1 1/16-mile Golden Rod, which often is a precursor to some of the major races in the division next winter and spring.

Meanwhile, Take Charge Lady drew post 1 with regular rider Tony D'Amico.

"She's training great, but the trip up and back to New York has me a little concerned," said McPeek. "Don't get me wrong - this is a special filly. But if there's anything I can say that does concern me, it's how much we've asked her to do so far. She'll definitely get a little time after this."

Besides the two standout favorites, the Golden Rod also will be contested by Lotta Rhythm, who upset a solid field in the one-mile Pocahontas Stakes here Nov. 3.

"This should tell us something about her," said trainer Hal Wiggins.

The other starters are Literary Light, a recent maiden winner here for Tony Reinstedler; Born to Dance, who has been dominating far lesser company in Michigan-bred races; and Wild Kandace, a maiden winner at Keeneland for trainer Andrew McKeever.

Among the fillies who took a pass on the Golden Rod after having been listed as possible starters were Bema and Joanies Bella.

* Nafzger already is in Florida for the winter. "What good am I going to do there Saturday?" he asked, adding that his longtime assistant, Ian Wilkes, "can take care of everything. I'd probably only mess things up." Nafzger will be based again in Barn 7 at Gulfstream Park, where some of his horses already have arrived.

* Laurie Bale, a longtime friend of Sam Maple, sent out a lengthy e-mail to her friends in the racing industry following Maple's death earlier this month at age 48.

Bale, who was befriended by Maple at a young age, ended her letter with a story of how Maple took her to a ninth-grade dance in her hometown of Omaha, Neb., where Maple was a riding star at Ak-Sar-Ben.

"Quite frankly," she wrote, "I can't think of too many famous athletes who would subject themselves to [going to] a dance on the arm of a young girl in a wheelchair, but Sam did. And he showed up on my doorstep with a corsage. That was Sam. He always wanted to make people happy."

* Island Echo ($14) led all the way to win the Wednesday feature, a $58,500 allowance. The victory was her second straight in a turf sprint this meet for trainer Bill Mott.

"It looks like she's found her way," said Mott assistant Ralph Nicks.

* Pat Day, who midway through the Thursday card appeared highly likely to win yet another Churchill riding title, will not be here Saturday. Day will be active in New York, with his mounts including Illusioned in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile.

* Action on the Kentucky circuit shifts Sunday to Turfway Park in Florence, where racing will be conducted Wednesdays through Sundays during the holiday meet, which runs through Dec. 31. The three-month winter-spring meet begins Jan. 1 with a varied schedule.

The first stakes of the meet is the Holiday Inaugural on Dec. 1.