04/03/2008 12:00AM

Asmussen coming up to Derby in fine form


LEXINGTON, Ky. - As trainer Steve Asmussen rolls along the Kentucky Derby trail, he must feel like he has turned into the stretch with a 20-length lead. Not that Asmussen necessarily brings an edge to the 134th Derby - nobody does. But with all the incredible karma enveloping him, any further success might look like overkill to pretty much anybody else.

Asmussen is due to arrive Sunday at Keeneland, before Curlin lands a few furlongs from here, across the street at Blue Grass Airport. Curlin is scheduled to be flown to Lexington that morning from New York. The 4-year-old colt left little doubt about his supremacy with his smashing victory last Saturday in the Dubai World Cup.

Buoyed in large part by that singular success - and also, by the way, the record pace he is on for most wins in a season - Asmussen is returning much of his focus to Pyro, his primo Derby prospect, and the rest of the Keeneland meet. With 161 victories through the first quarter of 2008, Asmussen is on a pace to surpass his own North American record of 555 wins, set in 2004.

Pyro looms a solid favorite in the Keeneland showcase race, the Grade 1 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on April 12. The colt worked Monday over the Keeneland Polytrack and is scheduled to have his final pre-race breeze this Monday.

"He's doing exactly what we want," Asmussen said Thursday from Oaklawn Park. "I feel great about the position he's in."

Pyro is part of a short cast of 3-year-olds likely for the $750,000 Blue Grass. One of his main challengers will be Cool Coal Man, the Fountain of Youth winner trained by Nick Zito. Cool Coal Man, with Megan Smillie aboard, breezed a half-mile Thursday morning in 47.40 seconds over a fast main track at Churchill Downs in Louisville.

Zito said later from New York that he was happy with the workout, which he tentatively had scheduled for this weekend but moved up because of rain.

The breeze will serve as the last major training move for the colt before he runs in the 1o1/8-mile Blue Grass.

Other prospects for the Blue Grass include Visionaire and the Todd Pletcher-trained duo of Monba and Cowboy Cal. Entries will be drawn Wednesday at Keeneland.

Kodiak Kowboy favored Sunday

Asmussen clearly holds the strongest hand in the Sunday feature at Keeneland, the $100,000 Lafayette Stakes, with Kodiak Kowboy. As a winner of three stakes at 2, and an easy winner of his lone start at 3, a March 14 allowance prep at Oaklawn, Kodiak Kowboy will be a solid favorite in a field of eight 3-year-olds entered in the seven-furlong race, which often is a springboard to the Derby Trial on opening day of the Churchill spring meet.

"I don't really have a next race in mind for him," said Asmussen. "He's won on Polytrack before, and this just looked like a good spot for him."

Odds against another Leparoux title

Julien Leparoux's bid for his fourth Keeneland riding title in five meets will be hindered by the fact he is missing three days early in this meet. Leparoux will ride Saturday at Hawthorne, Sunday at Oaklawn, and next Saturday, April 12, at Oaklawn, too.

Leparoux tied for the 2006 spring title with Rafael Bejarano, then won outright at the 2006 fall and 2007 spring meets.

Two other top jockeys, Garrett Gomez and Edgar Prado, are riding elsewhere Saturday but are not scheduled to miss any other days this meet, according to their agents.

Forerunner out, Fort Harrod in

Missing from the stakes scheduled this spring is the Forerunner Stakes, which since 1986 had been a 1 1/8-mile turf race for 3-year-olds. Before that, the Forerunner had been run since 1950 as an overnight race on the main track, and it had many noteworthy winners, including three straight Kentucky Derby champions: Iron Liege (1957), Tim Tam (1958), and Tomy Lee (1959).

The Forerunner was expendable because it had been the second of two races in the same category at this meet. The opening-day stakes, the Transylvania, also is a two-turn turf race for 3-year-olds.

A new stakes effectively replaces the Forerunner on the schedule: the $100,000 Fort Harrod, a 1 5/8-mile Polytrack race for older horses on April 19.

* David Heitzmann, now in his fifth year as clerk of scales at Keeneland, will take over that same position for the first time when Churchill starts its spring meet April 26. Heitzmann replaces Steve Krajcir, who will continue working as agent for jockeys Larry Melancon and Joe Johnson.

* Keeneland horsemen are selling $100 raffle tickets on a 2008 Mercedes to raise funds for farrier Joe Tubbs, who is suffering from cancer. For more information, call Pat Broaddus at (502) 817-5906.