01/26/2008 12:00AM

Asmussen pair figures tough in sprint

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NEW ORLEANS - It took eight tries, but the million-dollar investment, also known as First Degree, finally won his maiden. In the first effort of his 4-year-old campaign, First Degree put it all together with a 7 3/4-length victory in a maiden special weight race three weeks ago.

It was a nice race, enough to encourage the Steve Asmussen barn to step him up into Monday's feature race, a first-level allowance going six furlongs on the main track run for a $41,000 purse.

First Degree sat in second place for the first four furlongs of his maiden win, then took over the race, finishing the six furlongs in 1:10.78. It was First Degree's first start since last March.

"He just needed a break, he was tired of going to work," Asmussen said. "Anything close to that last race and he will be hard to beat."

First Degree's main competition may be the other Asmussen entrant, War Wolf. Like First Degree, he is well thought of in the barn and has shown talent, including a third-place finish in the Grade 2 Sanford as a 2-year-old.

And like First Degree, he needed a vacation: Following his third-place finish in the 2006 Sanford at Saratoga, War Wolf had nearly a year off.

"I think he's allergic to Saratoga, he got sick both times we took him up there," assistant trainer Scott Blasi said. "He's very talented and he's well-spotted with these horses."

War Wolf won a $20,000 claiming race two starts ago and finished a game second at this condition in his last race. He will be closing, if First Degree gives him the opportunity.

Trying to beat the Asmussen duo will be Locomotion, who is beginning his return from a year and three months on the sidelines.

While his Beyer Speed Figures are significantly below those of his competition, they represent his efforts as a 2-year-old. He shows a string of decent works for trainer Bret Calhoun in preparation for his return.

"He had a hairline fracture in his knee, and it was very slow healing," Calhoun said. "I'm sure he needs one race, especially coming in against these."

Locomotion's vacation was preceded by three losing efforts in stakes company, two of which came on the turf, a surface Calhoun believes he doesn't like.

"He could have been a little more accomplished if I had stayed away from the grass," Calhoun said. "But he's been training well, and we'll see how he moves forward."