04/05/2004 12:00AM

A tough spot for Lady Tak


LEXINGTON, Ky. - No one could have reasonably expected that the $175,000 Vinery Madison Stakes Wednesday at Keeneland would come up as wickedly tough as it did. At least Steve Asmussen, who will start the probable favorite, Lady Tak, has a sense of humor about it.

"I can't exactly run her in a maiden race any more," said Asmussen.

Lady Tak, one of the top 3-year-old fillies last year, will make her seasonal debut in an exceptional field that also includes California stars Ema Bovary and Buffythecenterfold, and East Coast standouts Yell and Harmony Lodge. One other filly, Virgin Voyage, rounds out the seven-furlong Madison, which occupies the usual race 8 feature slot on a nine-race card.

Lady Tak, owned by Heiligbrodt Racing Stable, drew the outside post, a starting position that should allow jockey Shane Sellers some flexibility as the race unfolds. Asmussen said he is "very excited" about the return of Lady Tak, who earned more than $675,000 in a 2003 season highlighted by a runaway win in the Grade 1 Test at this same distance.

"We've got nothing but respect for the horses we're running against," said Asmussen, who teamed Sunday with Sellers to win the Lafayette Stakes with Bwana Charlie. "At the same time, we believe we've got a very special filly in Lady Tak. We asked her to do a whole lot last year, and she did it, so we gave her the break she deserved. She's come back extremely well, which is why we're so excited about leading her over there Wednesday."

Lady Tak finished seventh and last in her 2003 finale, the Oct. 25 Breeders' Cup Distaff. Lady Tak's strength, Asmussen has said, is at or around seven furlongs, which is a primary reason she will take such strong support Wednesday.

The others that will take heavy action include Ema Bovary, a California-based mare who risks an eight-race win streak for trainer Larry Ross; Buffythecenterfold, who finished second as the favorite behind Ema Bovary in their last race Feb. 22 at Santa Anita; Harmony Lodge, winner of the Grade 1 Ballerina last summer for Todd Pletcher; and Yell, the Shug McGaughey-trained filly who was terrific in winning the Grade 3 Raven Run here last fall.

The Madison, which is likely to be graded next year after the requisite three years of existence, highlights a Wednesday program that also includes a $54,000, first-level allowance for 3-year-olds (race 6). First post is 1:15 p.m. Eastern.