03/31/2004 12:00AM

Asmussen and Ward are primed for spring

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LEXINGTON, Ky. - John T. Ward Jr. laid conspicuously low in south Florida this winter, preferring to save his bullets for the Keeneland spring meet.

Steve Asmussen launched attack after successful attack in New Orleans this winter, but his far-flung empire never seems to run out of ammunition.

Regardless of their differing strategies of wait-and-pounce and never-let-up, both trainers figure to have a good time at Keeneland this month.

Ward, who recently shipped his split strings from Palm Meadows and Palm Beach Downs into two separate barns at Keeneland, is confident his 32-horse stable is primed for a particularly good meet.

"We had some seconds and thirds at Gulfstream that should put us in some good spots here," Ward said. "I noticed that some guys at Palm Meadows were really focusing on the Gulfstream meet and were training their horses accordingly. But that usually isn't our intent for the winter months, and it sure wasn't this year."

Since losing such stars as Monarchos, Beautiful Pleasure, Darling My Darling, Snow Dance, and several others to retirement in recent years, Ward has found himself in something of a perpetual pattern of rebuilding. He firmly believes his stable could regain some prominence this month.

"We've got quite a few maiden and allowance horses ready to go," he said. "I'd bet I'll start as many as 25 individual horses at this meet. That should be a very good indicator of how much we've been pointing for this.

"When that big orange book comes out," Ward said of the Keeneland condition book, "we sit up and pay attention."

Asmussen, easily the leading trainer at the recently ended Fair Grounds meet, has sent some of his battle-proven veterans from that meet to Churchill Downs, including Bwana Charlie, who runs Sunday in the Lafayette, and Lady Tak, who makes her 4-year-old debut Wednesday in the Vinery Madison.

But in a nod toward what piques the interest of many fans at Keeneland in the spring, Asmussen said he also has a fresh supply of 2-year-olds ready to roll. Asmussen has become one of the dominant players in 2-year-old racing at recent spring meets here.

"We have quite a few we're planning on running," he said. "Don't ask me who'll win, though. We know which ones we like against each other, but sometimes that doesn't count. You can beat some of your own stock but come up short against the other guys."

Whereas Ward does not have a starter on the opening-day program, Asmussen will have four to saddle. His first runner is Texas Brown, a 2-year-old colt owned by one of his main clients, Bill Heiligbrodt. Texas Brown is one of eight first-time starters in the second race, the first so-called baby race in Kentucky this year.