11/28/2003 12:00AM

Asmussen opens meet with a splash


NEW ORLEANS - For Steve Asmussen, opening day at Fair Grounds was a rousing success: three winners, including a stakes victory from Posse, who rolled to a 1 1/2-length win in the Thanksgiving Handicap.

Of course, as Asmussen pointed out, he won four races on opening day last season, and he could have had another this year, except Von Braun finished second as the heavy favorite in a Louisiana-bred maiden sprint.

Posse came out of his race in fine shape, Asmussen said, as did Sister Swank, who revealed her stakes potential by winning the seventh race by 3 1/4 lengths. A Skip Away filly owned by William Heiligbrodt, Sister Swank won her debut at Louisiana Downs in August, then finished a fast-closing second in an entry-level allowance race despite encountering serious trouble.

"When she broke her maiden, she really surprised us," said Asmussen. "We bought her as a 2-year-old, and I really thought she wasn't what I wanted. After her second race, I said, 'Whew, we better give her a chance.'"

Asmussen freshened Sister Swank for her start Thursday, and she turned in an excellent effort, racing well off the pace before kicking into gear in the stretch. She finished well under Corey Lanerie and won going away, looking like she will improve in two-turn races. But Asmussen wants to wait for Sister Swank to grow up a bit before switching her to routes, and said her next race is likely to come in the Jan. 3 Thelma, another six-furlong race.

Asmussen has another Heiligbrodt filly, Perfect Moon, for Fair Grounds's first 3-year-old filly route race, the one-mile Tiffany Lass.

A wet opener

After the Thanksgiving Handicap, Asmussen came off the track wet from head to toe, and Posse followed him into the tunnel between the paddock and racetrack to get his picture taken. Nobody was going to stay outside a second longer than they had to.

Rain began falling here at 5 a.m. Friday, and continued up to first post at 12:30. And 10 minutes before the stakes race, the skies blackened and a torrential downpour started.

"It was a disaster out there," said Curt Bourque, who rode Bonapaw in the Thanksgiving Handicap. "The rain kind of felt like somebody slapping you in the face over and over again."

Even with such terrible weather, Fair Grounds president Bryan Krantz called opening day a success. The attendance of 5,188 was off by 2,000 from last season's opener, but 2002 featured an especially big crowd, and the weather this year was a major impediment. Handle was down close to $400,000 from last year, but again, the conditions were responsible.

"I think things went well," Krantz said. "I think we're going to be okay."

Stydahar heads Sunday's feature

Asmussen should be prominent in Fair Grounds's ninth race feature Sunday, a third-level turf allowance with a $62,500 claiming option. For this race, Asmussen, who had racked up four wins here through mid-card Friday, has Stydahar, who has won two of his last three starts, including a last-out victory at Keeneland. Because Asmussen and owner Nelson Bunker Hunt have entered Stydahar for the claiming price, Stydahar runs back at the same level of his most recent victory.

Stydahar has won two of his last three, and although both wins came over nine furlongs, he should do well at a mile on the closer-favoring Fair Grounds course. Stydahar made his U.S. debut here in March, finishing fifth after making a sharp move to reach contention coming off the far turn.

There are plenty of other options here, including Mercenary, who also runs for the claiming price despite having finished a close fourth Nov. 1 in the Grade 3 Carey Handicap at Hawthorne.

Great Bloom has turf stakes visions

The trainer Leo Gabriel, in his usual spot atop his stable pony, came off the racetrack late Friday morning accompanying a strapping bay horse that had just undergone a routine gallop. The horse was Great Bloom, who Gabriel hopes can take him into turf stakes races here later this meet.

Great Bloom, a 5-year-old Dynaformer gelding, was purchased privately by Diamond Racing Inc. earlier this fall. Based in New York with the trainer Steve Klesaris, Great Bloom had finished third in a $40,000 claiming race before switching barns and circuits, but looks like a much higher-class horse than that. Great Bloom won a Keeneland allowance race in his first start for his new connections, and followed up by dead-heating for win with graded stakes horse Hero's Tribute in a Churchill Downs turf race. There, Great Bloom ran under a $100,000 claiming option, leaving him eligible for an upcoming turf allowance here, which Gabriel plans to enter.

"We might have gotten real lucky," Gabriel said. "He might be okay, or he might be better than okay. A friend of mine called me and told me [Klesaris] was looking to get rid of some turf horses at the end of the year, so we went ahead and bought him."

Lanerie leaps to top of standings

Corey Lanerie won four straight races here opening day - including the Thanksgiving Handicap - to take an early lead in the rider standings. Then, he promptly left town.

Lanerie returned to Churchill Downs, where he had commitments for Friday and Saturday's races, but he will be back at Fair Grounds on Sunday. His agent, Rick Mocklin, said Lanerie might simply have remained in Louisville and made Sunday his first day here had he not been summoned to ride Posse.

"It was the plan all along to go back there and fulfill our obligations," Mocklin said.