01/23/2002 1:00AM

Asmussen again has Derby on his mind


NEW ORLEANS - His main owners aren't named Bob and Beverly, W.T., or Satish. He's no Baffert or Lukas or Zito - yet. But trainer Steve Asmussen has started blazing his own path toward the Triple Crown.

Two years ago Asmussen sniffed the Kentucky Derby with Snuck In, who wound up skipping the Derby and finishing fifth in the Preakness. Last year, Fifty Stars, the Louisiana Derby winner, took Asmussen all the way to the Derby, only to suffer an injury during the race.

His latest search for a Classic winner begins in earnest Saturday when he saddles Easyfromthegitgo in the $100,000 Lecomte Stakes, the first two-turn stakes race of the Fair Grounds meet for 3-year-olds.

In Asmussen's mind, Easyfromthegitgo remains a longshot to make the Kentucky Derby. Fine. But Asmussen is here once again and playing, and has several others in his vast operation with enough quality to be Derby possibilities.

It's easy to forget how far his barn has come in a short time. Only six years ago, Asmussen, now 36, spent the winter at Sam Houston running for second-tier purses. Last season, he ran away with the training title at Lone Star Park, tied for leading trainer honors at Fair Grounds, made a successful incursion into New York at Saratoga and Belmont, and ran wild with 2-year-olds on the Kentucky circuit in the fall. He finished second in the nation in wins, with 293, and fourth in earnings, with more than $8 million in purses. Entering Thursday's Fair Grounds program, Asmussen held a narrow lead atop the standings.

"I've had a lot of trainers over the years, and we have 14 right now," said Barry Irwin, who heads the Team Valor ownership group. Team Valor had horses with Asmussen for the first time last year, including the brilliant Cashier's Dream, who gave Asmussen his first Grade 1 win. "A lot of times I've had to mention stuff to trainers, make suggestions, but every time I've done that with Steve he's not only already thought of it, he's put it into action."

With a huge operation, Asmussen has a lot to think about, but he also has a capacious mind for the task. He makes the training chart for all 150 of his horses, which are scattered over three racetracks, and he can tick off each one's racing, training, and physical history.

Seek him out in his barn after training hours and you will often find Asmussen in a stall, pulling a mane or clipping a coat between phone calls - his horses always are well turned out for their races.

And he craves winning. "That's how I measure myself," he said, "probably to a fault." Although Asmussen is winning at a 20 percent clip this meet he thinks he should be winning twice as often.

Many of Asmussen's wins are taking place on a higher level than ever before, though Asmussen still carries a lot of cheaper stock. Asmussen takes winning seriously at every level, but, he said, "I'm definitely interested in continuously moving the bottom of the barn up."

His cornerstone clients - the Ackerley Brothers Farm, Robert Beck, Bill Heiligbrodt, Jim Cassels, and Bob Zollars - are helping him do just that by sending him ever more expensive horses. He has also picked up second-tier runners for The Thoroughbred Corp. and Padua Stables. His chances of striking gold with a 3-year-old are improving all the time.

"The amount of money we've had to spend on the yearling crop this year as opposed to two years ago, it's immeasurably different," Asmussen said. "We're headed into a stronger area."

But Asmussen acknowledged he still might not have the raw materials to churn out a bevy of legitimate Classic hopefuls each year, like a Lukas or a Baffert. He said he's working mainly with purchases in the $80,000 to $200,000 range, horses that have good looks and good conformation, but not necessarily classic bloodlines.

"I'm not going to tell you there's no difference between a $200,000 horse and $1 million," Asmussen said. "The $200,000, he may be the outstanding individual, but the other's the outstanding individual with the pedigree. I think we're right on the cusp of dealing with water that deep."

Asmussen's father, Keith, picks out many of the auction purchases that wind up in his son's barn. Keith also breaks and trains the young horses at the family's El Primero training center just outside Laredo, Texas. Asmussen shares his father's Quarter Horse background and, like Lukas and Baffert, he trained Quarter Horses before Thoroughbreds.

The Asmussens have long succeeded in buying individuals with speed, brilliance and precocity - Quarter Horse qualities. "You go with what you know," Asmussen said.

Asmussen's first star 3-year-old - his first star of any kind - was Valid Expectations, who had a wonderful sophomore season in 1996, but won the Derby Trial at one mile, not the Kentucky Derby at 1 1/4 miles. Snuck In, it turned out, also had distance limitations.

Which is not to say Asmussen only cranks out quick young sprinters. Two weeks ago he won the Sixty Sails, a turf route race, for the second year in a row with the mare Histoire Sainte. And Irwin said he sought Asmussen out because of his finesse and ability to work with a nervous horse.

Last year, Fifty Stars, a late-running, long-winded colt by Quiet American, broke the mold of a talented Asmussen 3-year-old. "We had 20 horses in the barn who could outwork him at five-eighths [of a mile]," Asmussen said. "But he didn't waste an ounce of energy. His state of mind and his style turned into money."

Windward Passage, a Captain Bodgit colt owned by Team Valor who won a two-turn maiden race at Churchill Downs, may be Asmussen's Fifty Stars of 2002. But Windward Passage went off his feed and was diagnosed with a stomach ulcer after shipping to Fair Grounds, and though he's training forwardly again, setbacks have prevented him from racing since early November.

Asmussen's luck also has been bad with the 3-year-old Unbridled Trick, who despite obvious talent has somehow remained a maiden after four starts, putting him on the far edge of the Derby picture.

Private Emblem, a New York-bred, finished third in the Texan Juvenile at Sam Houston and won the Black Gold Handicap on grass here. Asmussen will return him to dirt and give him a chance to prove his worth, but is sitting out the Lecomte with Private Emblem while waiting to see what he has in Easyfromthe-gitgo.

Easyfromthegitgo, a son of Dehere who is owned by Cassels and Zollars, finished second in his first three races, all sprints, before winning his maiden by almost four lengths in a seven-furlong race Nov. 16 at Churchill Downs. Asmussen immediately stretched him out to two turns in a Fair Grounds allowance race Dec. 14, and the colt responded with a convincing 5 1/2-length win over two highly regarded horses, Robe and Yoga.

"He's a horse I was worried about routing," Asmussen said. "What a blessed surprise how he relaxed and accelerated there. He's a very good mover, but he's just not very big. He's out of an Easy Goer mare, and I definitely think that's route.

"He's a little too aggressive for me right now to think Derby with him. He needs to drop the bridle and lope along, to be less excited about getting to the dance and more about staying at the dance."

Easyfromthegitgo's win at Churchill was one of 13 2-year-old races Asmussen won last fall in Kentucky alone, and one of about 50 over the course of last year. It's obvious he has the numbers to compete on a national level, and the quality clearly is evolving. Asmussen should be at the dance for years to come.