08/26/2003 11:00PM

Take Charge Lady, tough-luck filly


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - She is almost certainly the best horse in the country who has not won a race this season. That hardly is a mark of distinction, but Take Charge Lady's losing streak should come to a screeching halt here Monday in the Arlington Matron Handicap. The Matron is a Grade 3 race, Take Charge Lady a Grade 1 horse: do the math.

But a frustrating year has obscured just how solid a Grade 1 horse Take Charge Lady really is. Three times she has raced, and three times she has lost, but do not call this filly a failure. July 20, in the Delaware Handicap, she was second to the Bobby Frankel buzz saw Wild Spirit. At 1 1/4 miles, the distance was well beyond Take Charge Lady's best. June 21, in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps, Frankel got her again, this time with Sightseek, a superior one-turn horse who was aided by the Belmont track configuration, where route races like the Phipps have just one turn. And on April 5, Take Charge Lady came within a head of beating the unstoppable Azeri in the Grade 1 Apple Blossom.

"We were closer to her than anybody's been in a long time," said trainer Ken McPeek, who trains Take Charge Lady for the Select Stable. "About two jumps from the wire, I thought we had her. It was like sticking a knife in my heart."

The Matron is supposed to be Take Charge Lady's springboard to a more satisfying late-season campaign. From here, Take Charge Lady will try to repeat in the Spinster Stakes at Keeneland, and then it is on to the Breeders' Cup Distaff and, perhaps, a final stop in the Falls City at Churchill.

Her luck is due to change. Besides the three tough losses, Take Charge Lady went through a rough spell in late spring, when she battled a badly bruised foot.

"It was a deep bruise on the side of her foot, and it turned into an abscess and popped out the coronet band," McPeek said. "We thought at first it was a little thing that would be a few days, but it turned into a few weeks."

Now, McPeek feels that Take Charge Lady is in her best shape of the season. She has been training at Saratoga but was shipped to Churchill on Wednesday to finish her preparations for the Matron. She is training each day with verve, and is as eager to work as ever: Last weekend, she blazed five furlongs in 59 seconds and change.

And a top-notch Take Charge Lady racing around two turns at distances up to nine furlongs is among the very best mares in the country. This is a filly who won her career debut at 4 1/2 furlongs by more than four lengths - she has that kind of speed.

But Take Charge Lady quickly learned to ration her turn of foot. By the spring of her 3-year-old season, she was scoring blowout victories in route stakes, winning the Fair Grounds Oaks by five lengths and the Grade 1 Ashland by more than four. Only Farda Amiga's powerful late run kept Take Charge Lady from the Kentucky Oaks trophy, and she was awesome scoring a 2 1/2-length win over older horses in the Grade 1 Spinster.

"She is completely class, and she's been that way from day one," said Helen Pitts, McPeek's assistant and, on many mornings, Take Charge Lady's exercise rider. "She's just unbelievable to sit on. Just galloping in the morning, when she's going really good, she's a peach of a ride."

Take Charge Lady has won more than $2 million, and has turned in only two subpar races in an 18-start career. But her timing has been awful. The first poor showing came in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies of 2001, where she was sixth. The other one was at Arlington last fall, when Take Charge Lady was as dull as she has ever been in a sixth-place finish in the Distaff.

Perhaps those main-stage clunkers have kept down the respect accorded Take Charge Lady, but the near miss against Azeri was no fluke; at her best, Take Charge Lady may not be far behind the reigning queen of the American turf. Asked if his horse might be Azeri's equal, McPeek doesn't quite take the bait. "I'd love to try Azeri again sometime," he said.

The time should be coming soon enough.