09/15/2002 11:00PM

Take the Cake back after surgery

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CHICAGO - The Grade 3-winning 3-year-old filly Take the Cake returns from an injury-induced layoff Wednesday in Arlington's featured eighth race, a six-furlong, third-level optional claimer.

Take the Cake won the Grade 3 Forward Gal this past winter at Gulfstream, but it was a second to Take Charge Lady in the Grade 1 Ashland that ranks as her best race in a seven-start career. Take the Cake even earned a start in the Kentucky Oaks for owner Elizabeth Valando, but endured a troubled trip, finished a distant fifth, and found herself on the disabled list afterward.

A chip in Take the Cake's left knee required arthroscopic surgery, but the procedure was straightforward, and by mid-summer Take the Cake had returned to training under Carl Nafzger at Churchill Downs.

Injury never is a good thing, but in Take the Cake's case the time off allowed her to mature and develop while she wasn't being stressed by races every few weeks.

"She's probably a little more mature now," said Nafzger's assistant, Ian Wilkes. "She was just a notch below the good ones in the spring, and we're hoping she's caught up. She's easy to train and very talented. She does everything herself - you just help her along."

Take the Cake has raced well around two turns, but she also has won three of four dirt sprints, including her career debut, a rare achievement for a Nafzger-trained 2-year-old. Nafzger generally lets his young horses develop on their own timetable, and as Wilkes said, he rarely asks for speed in works. That makes Take the Cake's Sept. 11 six-furlong gate work in 1:12 even more impressive than it appears on the surface.

"She finished up strong," Wilkes said. "That was a great preparation for this race."

Still, the race looks far from one-sided, even if Take the Cake returns in good form. Silver Sonnet finished second in a strangely run race here Aug. 7, failing to show her customary speed, before being outrun late by Feminine Fury, a vastly improved mare who shows up again in Wednesday's race. But before her most recent start, Silver Sonnet scored two blowout allowance wins, showing a high turn of foot and the raw ability to give Take the Cake all she can handle.

Of the five others in the race, the Nebraska-bred Oglala Sue and the one-eyed filly Soul Onarazorsedge have the best chance at an upset.

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