12/03/2003 12:00AM

Asmussen: Play him or play against him?

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SUNLAND PARK, N.M. - Are you for Steve Asmussen or against him? It's a question bettors must ask themselves frequently when playing the races at Sunland Park these days.

Last year Asmussen won 16 races, including six stakes, from 39 starters at this meet. He did it by without any local stalls and by shipping in from such distant locales as Houston and New Orleans. This year, he has 18 stalls on the grounds, and has increased his presence at the meet.

Asmussen, whose top local assistant is Tony Mathiasen, was on hand for the races Tuesday afternoon, and was not at all surprised to be leading the trainer standings. When asked if he expected to be on top at meet's end, he confidently replied, "Oh sure. We'll be rotating horses in and out this meet every week, considering what races fill, what's ahead in the condition book, which ones get claimed, and so forth."

Asmussen had a horse in the sixth through 10th races Tuesday, and each one was a heavy favorite. He won two of the five races, and because of the heavy betting on Asmussen's horses, each race offered interesting betting propositions.

In the sixth, a maiden special, Asmussen ran Cugini Gold, a Touch Gold colt who had once been with trainer Shug McGauhey in New York. In his previous race, Cugini Gold had finished a well-beaten fifth at Churchill Downs and earned a Beyer Speed Figure of 57. He was sent off at even money. Also in the race was No Boots, who ran at Churchill last out, earned a Beyer of 59, and was sent off at 10-1. No Boots won and paid $22.40. Cugini Gold finished a well-beaten fifth.

The seventh was a $12,500 claimer, and Asmussen ran recent claim Lincoln Center, who was bet down to 8-5 and had last-race Beyers of 70 and 71. Trainer Betty Coatney ran Highway One O One, with Beyers of 69 and 67 at 10-1. Highway One O One won at $22.80, while Lincoln Center was up the track. For Asmussen, it was addition by subtraction as Lincoln Center was claimed, opening up valuable stall space.

Asmussen won both the eighth and ninth races. He took the eighth with Continuum ($4.80), a $525,000 yearling purchase who had finally won his maiden last out in his seventh try, and did it with a Beyer far and above anyone else in Tuesday's race. Asmussen won the ninth with even-money City Sleeper, who was clearly the best horse.

In the 10th, Asmussen sent out Compendium, a stakes winner with four 100-plus Beyers in his past performances, who was sent off at 3-5. To Compendium's inside was Engraved, a decent horse himself, with Beyers in the high 80's. Both are front-runners, and the two horses dueled through a half in 44.71 seconds in the two-turn mile. By midstretch Compendium was tiring, and the consistent Seattle Sunshine was able to rally from off the pace and win for trainer for Ramon Gonzalez, who has won six Sunland training titles. Seattle Sunshine paid an overlaid $42.40.

To bet Asmussen or to not bet Asmussen? That is the question.