01/04/2002 1:00AM

'Nice Boots' has big shoes to fill


JAMAICA, N.Y. - The 2001 Ruthless was the starting point for Xtra Heat's 3-year-old campaign, and her win there was followed by eight more stakes victories, a feat that could earn her an Eclipse Award next month.

Five 3-year-old fillies begin their 2002 campaign in Sunday's $75,000-added Ruthless at Aqueduct, but it would be presumptuous at this point to assume any them can fill Xtra Heat's shoes.

Nice Boots Baby, however, has started her career on the right foot by winning her first two starts at six furlongs by a combined margin of 14 1/2 lengths. Both those wins came at six furlongs, the distance of the Ruthless.

Nice Boots Baby, the likely favorite, has already beaten two of her Ruthless rivals, Vesta and Al Max Diner, in an allowance race over the inner track on Dec. 6. Nice Boots Baby set the pace and won by 3 3/4 lengths over Vesta, who finished 1 1/4 lengths in front of Al Max Diner. Nice Boots Baby also used front-running tactics to win a maiden race by 10 3/4 lengths in October at her Laurel home base.

Tony Dutrow, who owns and trains Nice Boots Baby, said he expects another top effort.

"She's really blossomed into a top sprinter," Dutrow said. "She's given me every indication that she'll run another big race."

Mario Pino rides Nice Boots Baby, who drew post 3 and is the one to catch.

Proper Gamble might have the best chance of reeling in Dutrow's filly. In her debut, Proper Gamble set the track record at The Meadowlands for 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:03.59. She returned to win a Belmont allowance race and beat the heavy favorite, A New Twist.

Proper Gamble was fourth in her last start on Nov. 18, the Grade 3 Valley Stream, and her trainer, Todd Pletcher, said his filly might have bounced from her first two efforts.

Al Max Diner set an uncontested pace and won the Holly at The Meadowlands by 3 3/4 lengths over Phyxius, who also has been entered. In her next start, Al Max Diner was outsprinted for the lead by Nice Boots Baby and finished third.

Ben Perkins Jr., Al Max Diner's trainer, said his filly might not have enjoyed being trapped in between horses.

"She dropped out of it, but got going and made a run when she got outside," Perkins said.

After losing to Nice Boots Baby, Vesta came back as the favorite and won a first-level allowance race by 5 1/4 lengths.