11/16/2004 12:00AM

'Valliant' still improving for Nafzger

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Kentucky weather is cooling down, but as often has happened at recent fall meets at Churchill Downs, trainer Carl Nafzger is just now getting hot.

Nafzger won with two first-time starters here Saturday and has had the most active stable at this meet, surpassing even the output of Dale Romans and Steve Asmussen. Coming into the penultimate week of racing at the Churchill fall meet, Nafzger had 33 starts, three more than Romans and Asmussen.

More importantly, Nafzger's horses are winning their fair share of races, similar to how the stable came on strong two years ago, when Nafzger narrowly missed winning the training title, with 14 wins to Ken McPeek's 15. Nafzger, Asmussen, and Bob Holthus, each with seven wins, trailed only Romans's eight entering the Wednesday card.

More often than not, it seems, Nafzger walks into the Churchill paddock to meet young, well-bred horses that are improving, and that has been very much the case at this meet. One of those typical Nafzger runners, Valliant Dancer, figures to take some beating in the Thursday feature at Churchill, a $54,900 second-level allowance that pits six fillies at 1 1/16 miles on the main track.

A 3-year-old filly, lost the first five starts of her career, three times for a claiming price. But she began to show progress this summer at Ellis Park, and after winning an Oct. 17 maiden race at Keeneland and a Nov. 7 allowance at Churchill, she returns Thursday looking for a three-peat.

It may be no coincidence that Valliant Dancer's recent improvement has come as the distances have gotten longer. All but one of her defeats came at sprint distances, while her two victories have come around two turns.

Maybe the strongest challenger to Valliant Dancer is , who also has proven adept around two turns. She is trained by Tony Reinstedler.

Trainer Gary Hartlage has entered the uncoupled duo of Solitary Emerald and All at Once, with stable rider Joe Johnson scheduled to ride All at Once and Pat Day, who rarely gets a call from Hartlage, getting the mount on Solitary Emerald.

Shorewalk Drive and Daddy's Petunia complete the lineup.

The Thursday feature is the ninth of 10 races and the only allowance of the program, although two starter-allowances (races 2 and 5) are carded earlier. First post is 12:40 p.m. Eastern.