01/20/2005 1:00AM

Abundance of good young fillies

Louis Hodges Jr.
The 3-year-old filly More Moonlight will likely make her next start in the Dixie Belle at Oaklawn on Jan. 29.

NEW ORLEANS - Trainer Steve Asmussen had a disappointing afternoon at Fair Grounds on Road to the Derby Kickoff Day last Saturday.

First, jockey Jerry Bailey got delayed coming in from Florida and missed riding two of Asmussen's 3-year-olds, the filly Punch Appeal in the Tiffany Lass Stakes and the colt Smooth Bid in the Lecomte Stakes. Smooth Bid just missed, losing by a neck, and Punch Appeal led most of the way but could not hold on as the 2-5 favorite, finishing third The Beter Man Can.

Asmussen was gracious in defeat. Punch Appeal will survive to race another day, and the trainer offered no excuses.

"She's fine," he said. "There's nothing wrong with her. I don't want to take anything away from the winner."

Punch Appeal is not the only talented 3-year-old filly in his barn. More Moonlight won impressively earlier this month at Fair Grounds and will likely run at Oaklawn Park in next Saturday's $50,000 Dixie Belle.

On Monday, Summerly, a beautiful Summer Squall filly, won an entry-level allowance easily, running away from the field to win by 9 3/4 lengths going 1 1/16 miles. She covered the distance in 1:44.47, with no urging from jockey Donnie Meche. The win makes her a likely candidate for the Silverbulletday on Feb. 12, part of Louisiana Derby Preview Day.

With another good 3-year-old filly, Megascape, doing well in New York, Asmussen has plenty of options on the horizon.

Grass is getting fast

The Fair Grounds turf course is notoriously tough on front-runners due to its sandy, tiring base. Some handicappers believe that the only time the turf course favors front-runners is after massive rains, which tighten up the sand base. That theory seemed to work last week, when a downpour forced the races off the turf Thursday and Friday. Come Saturday, horses were suddenly winning on the front end in grass races. In last Saturday's fourth race, Third Day led every step of the way to win a 1 1/16-mile allowance on the grass. Ambition Unbridled battled on the front end to win the Leggio Memorial Handicap later on the card.

On Sunday, Ladoma cleared the field in the fourth race and held on to win a 5 1/2-furlong turf sprint. In the sixth race, Thunderdoll came rolling along on the front end at 19-1 to win a mile maiden race on the grass. On Monday, Chelsey's Bid blitzed the field on the turf in the seventh race, another 5 1/2-furlong sprint.

"Every once in a while you find they do win on the front end," said trainer Bret Calhoun, who watched his good turf horse Janeian get swallowed up by the tiring turf course earlier in the meet. "You just don't know when."

Melancon riding out bad luck

Jockey Gerard Melancon has overcome a lot of adversity at the meet. His agent for nearly five years, Jerry Harrison, had to retire before the meet because of a cancerous brain tumor.

Ronnie Ebanks, an old friend of Melancon's who had retired as an agent in order to pursue a career as a professional poker player, came in to help out Melancon and the two got off to a strong start, winning the first race of the meet and hovering near the top of the jockey standings. Ebanks did such a good job that Pat Valenzuela hired him out from under Melancon.

Richard Price, who has been handling Lonnie Meche's book, took over for Melancon. In his first week with Price, Melancon has gone through a bit of a slump, winning on only 2 of his 28 mounts. He's riding just as well as ever, but six second-place finishes reflect his level of frustration. The classy Melancon has no hard feelings about Ebanks leaving.

"I can't blame anyone for trying to better themselves," he said. "I'm a big believer in that. He can probably make more money with P. Val in a couple of weeks than he can with me in a year."

Meanwhile, Melancon will continue riding and hope for the best.