Belterra has `star' written on her

Maryland-rooted filly, 3-for-3, tries Bonnie Miss

Horse Racing

March 15, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. - The best horse competing in this weekend's major stakes for 3-year-olds might not run tomorrow in the Florida Derby or Gotham Stakes, or Sunday in the San Felipe Stakes.

Sorry, guys, but the best horse might be a filly, and one with deep Maryland roots. She races today in the $250,000 Bonnie Miss Stakes here at Gulfstream Park.

In a lackluster year in which 3-year-old fillies are generating as much excitement as their male counterparts, at least at this juncture on the Kentucky Derby trail, the roll call for promising fillies starts with Belterra.

She totes an unblemished record - three wins in three starts as a 2-year-old - into the Grade II Bonnie Miss, the filly counterpart to the Florida Derby, against five fillies, all with a distinct advantage.

They have all raced at least twice this year. Belterra hasn't competed since November. Still, if Belterra is the filly her Maryland owner believes she is, she will prevail in the Bonnie Miss and bound onward toward some of America's premier stakes.

"If she is what we think she is," says Bob Manfuso, "she's rarified."

Manfuso, who owns Chanceland Farm in Howard County with trainer Katy Voss, bred and owns Belterra. He selected the mating of his mare Cruising Haven, who resides at Chanceland, with the great racehorse and sire Unbridled.

Belterra was born April 2, 1999, in Kentucky and raised in Maryland. She made the transition when she was 2 months old, arriving at Chanceland for that critical period of growth, learning and exercise. She caught Manfuso's eye from the beginning.

"Hope springs eternal," Manfuso says. "All kids are cute, but once in a while you get a foal who's just very special.

"She had good size and good balance. After that, it's kind of hard to describe. It's a certain presence she had, the way she handled herself out in the field. Obviously, you watched the way she traveled. She had all the pieces."

The staff at Chanceland treated her like a princess, and then, in the fall of 2000, taught her to accept a rider. At the beginning of 2001, she transferred to Ocala, Fla., for preparatory schooling to the college of Carl Nafzger, the Kentucky trainer and friend of Manfuso.

"Who in the heck would you like to train an Unbridled other than a Carl Nafzger?" Manfuso says.

Nafzger trained Unbridled, the champion 3-year-colt of 1990. Unbridled won three Grade I stakes: the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic. After establishing himself as a leading sire, Unbridled died of complications from colic surgery last October at Claiborne Farm in Kentucky.

Taking charge of the 2-year-old Belterra last May, Nafzger proceeded patiently. Belterra didn't race until Oct 6. She won her seven-furlong debut at Keeneland by a neck after charging from eighth in a field of nine.

She won her second start on Halloween at Churchill Downs, again exploding from the back of the pack to win at a mile by 10 1/4 lengths.

In just her third start, she captured the Grade II Golden Rod Stakes Nov. 24 at Churchill Downs by 4 1/2 lengths, proving she could handle the slop, 1 1/8 miles and one of the best young fillies in the land.

Belterra devoured Take Charge Lady. This year, Take Charge Lady won back-to-back filly stakes at the Fair Grounds with such commanding ease that her trainer, Ken McPeek, wants to nominate her to the Triple Crown races.

McPeek also trains two of the top 3-year-old colts, Repent, who won the Louisiana Derby, and Harlan's Holiday, who competes tomorrow in the Florida Derby. But Take Charge Lady might be the fastest 3-year-old in his barn, and she stood no chance last fall against Belterra.

Nafzger says he has trained Belterra to win the Bonnie Miss, "not just to run around there and finish third or fourth. This is a big step for her coming off a layoff. But she's ready."

Manfuso flew down yesterday from Maryland to watch his filly run. He said he'd love to watch her win, but that he understands it's a long year with major objectives: the Kentucky Oaks, Alabama Stakes and Breeders' Cup Distaff.

"If she's the kind of filly we hope she is," Manfuso said, "those have to be the goals."

Asked whether he would consider running Belterra, if she continues dominating fillies, against males in the Kentucky Derby, Manfuso said probably not; he'd prefer keeping her against fillies.

Then he added, as a footnote for future consideration: "Never say never."

NOTES: Trainer Todd Pletcher said yesterday that he plans to run both Nokoma and Smooth Jazz in the Florida Derby. He recently received Smooth Jazz from the Laurel barn of Tony Dutrow, who sold the lightly raced colt to Michael Tabor two weeks ago.

"And no, we're not entering Smooth Jazz as a rabbit, although Obviously, he does have early speed," Pletcher said. Smooth Jazz has won both starts but never raced farther than six furlongs. ...

The Florida Derby favorites, Harlan's Holiday and Booklet, galloped yesterday at Gulfstream. John Ward Jr., trainer of Booklet, said his colt was so sharp "we had to gallop him to take some of the edge off."

Florida Derby

Where: Gulfstream Park, Hallandale, Fla.

When: Tomorrow, 5:40 p.m.

Distance: 1 1/8 miles

Purse: $1 million

TV: 5-6 p.m. ESPN

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