10/06/2005 12:00AM

Asmussen goes for the big pot


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - In high-stakes poker, players look for an opponent's tell - that is, a detectable change in a player's behavior that tips his hand. Tells range from the obvious, like playing chips with more or less force, to the less obvious, like changes in eye contact.

Horse trainers also have tells, and reading those signs can point to overlaid winners and vulnerable favorites. Their tells lie not in body movements, but in the placement of their horses.

Look no further than Saturday's $250,000 Phoenix Breeders' Cup at Keeneland for an example. Trainer Steve Asmussen - who won a record 555 races last year - has entered Bwana Charlie, who has raced just twice this year, losing both times.

Little about his recent form suggests he can win the Phoenix. He is coming off a last-place finish in the Aristides, a race that took place in June. And now he's facing a speedy group that includes a pair of red-hot runners in Fifteen Rounds and Premium Saltine.

Asmussen, to be sure, knows all this. He has gone through what he has called a terribly unlucky year with Bwana Charlie, who missed a race this spring due to herpes quarantine at Churchill Downs; in the months that followed, the horse seemed to have one setback after another.

Asmussen also knows the competition, having seen some of his runners lose to the Phoenix favorites. In one example, Premium Saltine beat Asmussen's Two Down Automatic handily in the Prairie Meadows Sprint.

So ask yourself, why is a sharp trainer like Asmussen running Bwana Charlie in such a tough comeback race? Faith. At least that's my guess, and since my money will be on Bwana Charlie, it's my clear hope, too. I'm reading Bwana Charlie's presence in the race as a signal that Asmussen thinks this horse can return to his form from last season, which was capped by a fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Sprint.

His recent works have been sharp, in time and in frequency. And lest we forget, the horse is proven over the Keeneland main track, having won the Lafayette Stakes there last spring by 3 1/4 lengths in his only race over the surface.

I suppose one could argue that Bwana Charlie's past success at Keeneland is the reason the horse is in the race. I doubt that, however. In checking the Keeneland condition book, I spotted two allowance sprint options for Bwana Charlie.

Going back to the poker analogy, Asmussen is all in. And I'm not about to call his bluff.

Even with the layoff and the poor recent form, I'm playing Bwana Charlie to win the Phoenix at a price. There appears to be ample speed to set up his rally, and his chief opponents, Fifteen Rounds and Premium Saltine, are not unbeatable, despite their fast recent races. The Chicago-based Fifteen Rounds has shipped out of Illinois only twice for races, finishing in the rear half of the field both times, and Premium Saltine finished seventh and ninth in two prior starts at Keeneland.

High Cotton has proved his worth

My play in the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity is more obvious: High Cotton.

When the colt scored in his second lifetime start Sept. 17, he ran quickly, posting a 92 Beyer Speed Figure. He also proved his worth in a very talented field. The runner-up, Rondo, was bought by Sheikh Mohammed's Darley Stable for $2.9 million at a 2-year-old sale earlier in the year, and third-place Ramsgate is an exciting Bobby Frankel-trained runner who debuted at 43-1 in that race.

When does a Bobby Frankel horse start at 43-1? Only when a maiden field is loaded top to bottom with stakes quality. That is the group High Cotton defeated.

Ad Valorem already Group 1 winner

I'm following the money in the Shadwell Turf Mile - backing Ad Valorem, the horse whose connections arguably stand to benefit most from a victory.

A Group 1 winner in Europe, he is being shipped here from his Irish base by trainer Aidan O'Brien. Owned by the principals behind Coolmore Stud, Ad Valorem, a son of Danzig, would become even more valuable as potential sire with a Grade 1 win in America.

His connections brought the ill-fated Landseer over to win this race in 2002. Sadly, that one broke down a start later in the Breeders' Cup Mile when making a threatening move.

Like Landseer, Ad Valorem will race with Lasix for the first time in the Shadwell Turf Mile.