01/11/2007 12:00AM

Amoss barn looks to widen its lead


How does a guy get to be a 30 percent-winning trainer while running a high volume of horses? It takes a certain degree of relentlessness, a willingness to keep pushing past a point many people would be satisfied just reaching. Tom Amoss, for example, as of Thursday afternoon had a one-win lead atop the trainer standings at Fair Grounds, his stable's 17 victories from 57 starters good for a 30 percent strike rate. Yet there is not a lot of back-patting going on at Team Amoss, at least not at the top.

"It's been a good meet," Amoss said Thursday morning. "I wouldn't say it's been a great meet, when your second-place finishes match your first-place finishes. To me, historically, that means you're not entering very well."

Amoss has 14 seconds to go along with those 17 wins, which could lead to some "what-if" thinking. But the barn has a chance to add to its win total on Saturday, with horses in five of the 11 races on Road to the Derby Kickoff Day, including entrants in three of the five stakes races.

Two allowance horses look tough to beat in their respective races, Eight Ball, a likely odds-on favorite in race 10, and Smoke Mountain, who goes in a fourth-level sprint allowance, race 4.

Smoke Mountain has looked like a stakes-class sprinter in his recent races, winning three in a row since Amoss and owner Maggi Moss claimed him for $30,000 on Sept. 2 at Turfway Park. Coming off a pair of blowouts at Mountaineer Park, Smoke Mountain won a third-level allowance race last month at Fair Grounds by more than seven lengths, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 100. It would have been no surprise to see him in Saturday's sixth race, the $100,000 Colonel Power, but Amoss has opted instead for a slower upward curve.

"Both Maggi and I think he still has some developing to do," Amoss said. "If we can bring him along a little bit at a time, it'd be a good thing."

Besides, Amoss has two others for the Colonel Power, and both of them, Smalltown Slew and Monkey Hill, look like contenders. Both raced last out in the Dec. 23 Bonapaw Stakes - which was rained off turf - with Smalltown Slew second and Monkey Hill fourth. Monkey Hill has mainly been an allowance horse, and ought to improve Saturday in his second race back from a layoff. Smalltown Slew, however, came to Amoss the same way as Smoke Mountain, through a mid-level claim, and has been first or second in nine of his last 10 starts, finishing third the one time he missed the exacta.

"Oftentimes, claimed horses can show even vast improvement, but that improvement is short-lived," Amoss said. "He's been able to maintain a high level for almost a year."

Amoss has been doing it a lot longer than that.

Blasi hopes to finish with a flourish

The Scott Blasi era lasted only six months, but Blasi is going out with a bang. Blasi, Steve Asmussen's top assistant, will give way to Steve Asmussen himself on Sunday at Fair Grounds - the first day horses entered in Asmussen's name will race in New Orleans this season. But before then, Blasi is the trainer of record for horses entered in all five stakes races on Saturday's card.

"I'll pretty much have the same job as I had before - only less reporters to talk to," Blasi said, asked about Asmussen's return to action.

It's possible the barn will be without a horse in the Tiffany Lass, since Jersey Bond was cross-entered in a Sunday allowance race, but Blasi definitely has a horse to watch in the Colonel Power in Private Vow, if for no other reason than Private Vow was such a promising 2-year-old and may still amount to a solid older stakes horse.

Private Vow had a rein break in the 2005 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but capped off an excellent 2-year-old season with an easy win in the Kentucky Jockey Club Handicap, making him an early-season horse to follow on the 2006 Triple Crown trail. But Private Vow had a minor setback last winter and kind of played catch-up all spring in an effort to make the Triple Crown. He finished third in the Arkansas Derby, but after a tough-trip 14th in the Kentucky Derby and a lackluster sixth in the Northern Dancer at Churchill, Private Vow spent the next several months on R & R.

"He wasn't turned out," Blasi said. "I had him at Churchill all summer, but I gave him the summer off. He does better in cooler weather."

In his first start after the vacation, Private Vow ran a solid third in a high-end Churchill allowance race Nov. 19, perhaps presaging better things to come.

"I do think he's back as fast as he ever was," said Blasi, who affirmed that Private Vow might stick to one-turn races in the near future. "He's a lot stronger through three-quarters and a mile."

* The horses in Tom Tomillo's barn are running under the name of assistant trainer Joseph Felks while Tomillo serves out a 15-day suspension for an Illinois medication violation. Tomillo was suspended because he crossed Illinois's permitted number of Bute overages. Tomillo is out through Jan. 21.