02/07/2008 12:00AM

Asmussen barn's talent runs deep

Z Fortune, a New York-bred, following his impressive Lecomte Stakes win.

NEW ORLEANS - Scott Blasi, trainer Steve Asmussen's trusty assistant, was asked to give a visitor a peek at the star older horse Curlin on Monday morning, and led the way to the Asmussen barn's East-facing row of stalls, which revealed not merely Curlin, but a shed row stocked with stakes horses.

About halfway down came 3-year-old Kodiak Kowboy, winner of the Saratoga Special, the place horse in the Futurity at Belmont, and third-place finisher in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Don't try finding Kodiak Kowboy on racing pundits' Kentucky Derby shortlists, because he's not there. Kodiak Kowboy is by a sprint sire, and generally judged to be at most a middle-distance horse. Besides, he's not even scheduled to make his 2008 debut until March.

But just a couple of years ago, Asmussen's brain might have been working overtime figuring out how to get Kodiak Kowboy to the big dance, to fit a square peg into a round hole. Not anymore. Before you get to Kodiak Kowboy in that row of stalls, you first have to pass Z Fortune, flashy winner of the Lecomte Stakes last month, and Pyro, who showed as much potential last year at age 2 as any horse, and was 12 lengths better than Kodiak Kowboy in the BC Juvenile. Pyro will make his 3-year-old debut Saturday in the Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds. To win it, he may have to get past Z Fortune.

"Those are two prospects as good as you could hope to have," Asmussen said Tuesday morning at the Fair Grounds track kitchen.

Asmussen, 42, is crushing the current Fair Grounds meet. He has 56 wins, far more than any other trainer, and before the meet was half over, he had set a record for stakes wins in a Fair Grounds season. He won four stakes on one racing program, and has at least one horse for all six stakes on Saturday's mega-card. But it goes deeper. Having the Horse of the Year, Curlin, helped push Asmussen to a career-best $23.7 million in purse earnings last year, and Asmussen won 18 graded stakes, also a career best. He began the year with Tiz Wonderful as a top Derby prospect, and just as Tiz Wonderful suffered a tendon injury, he took over Curlin's training.

This is all part of Asmussen's

overall drift toward the top. Only Todd Pletcher's stable earned more in purses during 2007, and with Asmussen's surge have come 3-year-old prospects of greater scope and substance. Asmussen has nothing but respect for his top 3-year-olds of past seasons, and stresses the fact that individuals like Fifty Stars, winner of the Louisiana Derby, were really nice horses. But the circumstances accompanying that kind of animal were much different than those surrounding a horse like Pyro.

"In years past, I was trying to prove I had a horse to get to the Derby," Asmussen said. "They had to earn their way. There was a step-by-step process to get them there."

Pyro already has more than enough earnings to be assured a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. Asmussen does not doubt that Pyro, a Winchell Thoroughbreds homebred by Pulpit, is good enough to make it.

"The potential is there," Asmussen said. "I just want to get him in a position that he's going to get better."

Pyro has never been favored to win a race, and remains eligible for his entry-level allowance condition, with a six-furlong debut win last summer at Churchill as his only victory. But Pyro ran against the best 2-year-old of his generation, War Pass, three times last year, finishing third to him after a stumbling start in a Saratoga sprint race, and a troubled second in the Champagne Stakes. In the BC Juvenile, Pyro was the only horse making any kind of move on pacesetting War Pass over a sloppy, fast-playing racetrack.

Behind the scenes, the Asmussen team always has held Pyro in high esteem.

"On multiple occasions I worked him as a young horse," said jockey Shaun Bridgmohan, who has become Asmussen's first-call rider at Fair Grounds, and has been aboard Pyro in all his races. "You could not believe he was a 2-year-old, the way he handled everything. It's not that he worked that fast, but every time you needed him he was there for you."

Asmussen believes Pyro still has areas in which he can improve.

"He was ratty in the gates in the Breeders' Cup, and you're not going to act up in the gates and win the Derby," he said.

For Z Fortune, an Ahmed Zayat-owned colt by Siphon, Asmussen has nothing but praise. Z Fortune started later than Pyro, debuting on Oct. 20 in a New York-bred maiden sprint, which he easily won in a quick time. This obviously was not a typical New York-bred, but Asmussen kept the colt in restricted company once more in order to give Z Fortune a better foundation to step up into stakes competition.

"He was just not physically - or mentally - mature enough to go in 44 and change," Asmussen said. "You wanted things to unfold a little more slowly for him."

Come spring, as Pyro and Z Fortune might head toward a date in the Derby, Asmussen will be running strings at six different racetracks. He continues claiming horses for himself, regularly winning races with the lowliest of claimers. It's a part of his operation he does not seem inclined to give up, even after more than a decade on the upswing has propelled him to such vast success.

"You can't let up in racing," Asmussen said. "They'll knock you down."