07/03/2002 11:00PM

Which filly will continue ascent?

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ALTOONA, Iowa - Three fillies on the improve - Minister's Baby, Katy Kat, and Softly - are among 10 fillies and mares entered in the $125,000 Iowa Distaff on Saturday at Prairie Meadows.

Minister's Baby has flourished since joining trainer Ken McPeek's barn last fall, winning 3 of 6 starts, including the Diamond Trail Stakes here by 7 1/4 lengths in mid-May. In her most recent start she finished last of six in the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill following a wide trip.

"Everything that could go wrong went wrong," said McPeek of the Fleur de Lis. "You can throw the race out."

McPeek says the improvement Minister's Baby has shown this year can be credited in part to the weight she put on this winter - she added almost 100 pounds during a four-month layoff, he said - and in part to the schooling she receives in the paddock before her races.

"She is a nervous filly who used to wash out badly prior to her races," he said. "Now we school her constantly and she doesn't even know she is racing when we lead her over prior to her starts."

Craig Perret has the call aboard Minister's Baby, a 4-year-old daughter of Deputy Minister who figures to benefit from a hot early pace in the Distaff.

Katy Kat has come to hand this year for trainer Niall O'Callaghan in her 4-year-old season. After being beaten a nose in allowance company in her first start of the year in February at Fair Grounds, she captured the Bayou Breeders' Cup Handicap by 2 1/2 lengths there in March.

In her most recent start, Katy Kat finished third in the Grade 3 Sixty Sails Handicap on April 28 at Sportsman's Park, beaten 7 1/4 lengths by With Ability. Katy Kat has won 4 of her 11 career starts and has earned more than $210,000. Robby Albarado, who has ridden Katy Kat in all three of her starts this year, has the mount.

Softly tries stakes company for the first time as she goes for her fifth straight win. Trained by Carl Nafzger, the 4-year-old Softly is undefeated around two turns. She began her winning streak in her first route race, in February against maidens at Gulfstream Park. Regular rider Jon Court has the mount.

Six of the other seven starters in the Distaff field are stakes winners, including 2000 champion 2-year-old filly Caressing, a 4-year-old who has earned more than $918,000 and makes her second start while racing in foal to Fusaichi Pegasus.

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