03/06/2003 1:00AM

Talented trio has something to prove


NEW ORLEANS - The Fair Grounds Oaks lacks quantity, but the short field has a sweet center.

Atlantic Ocean, Belle of Perintown, and Lady Tak, each coming off an impressive stakes victory, square off against three others Saturday in the $350,000 Oaks, a Grade 2 race contested at 1 1/16 miles on dirt. Even with their recent success, the three fillies have questions to answer. The accomplished Atlantic Ocean ships from Southern California, and her stakes wins have been workmanlike, not dominant. Lady Tak has never raced farther than a mile. Belle of Perintown will be checked for class after drubbing overmatched rivals in her last start.

For sheer brilliance, no horse in the Oaks has shown more than the freakishly fast Lady Tak, who brings a perfect record into the race. In four starts, Lady Tak has been neither beaten nor tested, and after sprinting in her first three starts, she stretched out to win the one-mile Tiffany Lass Stakes on Jan. 26 by 2 3/4 lengths.

But one-mile races at Fair Grounds have a short stretch. When Lady Tak reaches the one-mile finish line Saturday, she will still have another sixteenth of a mile left in the Oaks.

"People underestimate the difference between mile races and 1 1/16 miles here," said Eddie Kenneally, who trains Belle of Perintown. "With the short stretch at a mile, it's more than just the distance, it's the way the race is run."

Trainer Steve Asmussen chose to skip the Feb. 15 Silverbulletday with Lady Tak and bring a fresh horse into the Oaks.

"Do I worry about her being too sharp? Yes, I always worry about it," Asmussen said. "She's extremely competitive, and I was worried about her first two-turn race, but she handled it fine. I suppose they could gallop the run out of her at some distance. I just hope it's not a mile and a sixteenth on Saturday."

Belle of Perintown was supposed to have her shot at Lady Tak in the Tiffany Lass, but she flipped in the starting gate and was eased around the racetrack by jockey Calvin Borel, who felt Belle of Perintown was uncoordinated and shaken by the gate incident. Three weeks later, Belle of Perintown came back with a vengeance in the Grade 2 Silverbulletday. After stalking quick fractions set by Rebridled Dreams, Belle of Perintown took over with a quick move on the far turn and won by more than eight lengths.

"Ideally, I'd prefer these races were four weeks apart, but she's coming into this race in great shape," Kenneally said.

Kenneally respects Lady Tak, but fears Atlantic Ocean, who has already packed a startling amount of experience into a relatively short career. Atlantic Ocean created a stir when she was sold to The Thoroughbred Corporation for almost $2 million as a 2-year-old. In 10 starts, Atlantic Ocean has run at six different racetracks, and she has won stakes races sprinting, routing, on dirt and on turf.

"She's getting better and better, stronger and stronger," said trainer Bob Baffert, who will try to sweep Fair Grounds graded stakes this weekend with Kafwain in Sunday's Louisiana Derby.

Lady Tak could seize the early lead Saturday if jockey Donnie Meche chooses, but the last thing Asmussen wants is a speed duel. Belle of Perintown and Atlantic Ocean have tactical speed, but it is Rebridled Dreams who could set the early pace from an inside draw.

Lady Tak should be positioned just off her flank, with Lovely Sage also close in the early going. Lovely Sage, who was purchased privately in January, has begun her career with a pair of sprint wins, including a smart score Feb. 9 over the highly regarded Blues in Seattle.

"She's had a couple strong works that have encouraged us to try this race," said trainer Tom Amoss.

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