02/28/2008 1:00AM

Asmussen sets plans for 3-year-olds


Steve Asmussen will be in Dubai by Wednesday night, with Curlin scheduled to race the following evening in his 2008 debut, but before he departed for his long journey to the Middle East, Asmussen oversaw major workouts for his 3-year-old stakes horses Sunday and Monday in New Orleans. He also confirmed their upcoming starts.

Pyro, as everyone already knew, is heading to the Louisiana Derby, but he'll be joined in the race by a newcomer to the Asmussen barn, J Be K. Making his first start since Saratoga, and first since owner Ahmed Zayat took him out of Southern California and put him in Asmussen's care, J Be K scored a sharp five-length victory in an entry-level allowance sprint on Feb. 15 at Fair Grounds. He earned a spot in the Louisiana Derby - which will mark both his stakes and two-turn debut - with a solid solo six-furlong work timed in 1:13.40 on Sunday. Asmussen said Kent Desormeaux will ride J Be K in the March 9 Louisiana Derby.

Monday, Pyro and Z Fortune - who will start next in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn - were up, both working in company. Pyro went six furlongs with Zanjero in 1:14, while Z Fortune, whose race comes up a week later, was timed in 1:02 for his breeze with the graded-stakes-class sprinter Noonmark.

For Pyro, it was a welcome return to the typical after a loose horse disrupted his five-furlong work the week before.

"I loved the work," Asmussen said. "This is where I want him at rhythm-wise. The loose horse last week screwing things up, I didn't like."

Asmussen said Pyro would work in company again Monday, but not with Zanjero.

"We want him nice and relaxed the last week before the Louisiana Derby," Asmussen said. "Working with another horse really seems to set a rhythm with him. It keeps him from trying to impress anybody."

Z Fortune won the Lecomte Stakes at the ongoing meet, and was beaten for the first time when he finished second to Pyro in the Risen Star Stakes. Jockey Garrett Gomez described Z Fortune after the race as a big kid, but Asmussen said Z Fortune is coming around in a timely fashion.

"The time frame is for him to get a little quicker and be a little lighter on his feet, and I think that's happening," Asmussen said. "He's maturing at the right time."

Grasshopper drills for handicap

Potential handicap star Grasshopper turned in a solid six-furlong work Monday, and remains on course to start as the favorite in the New Orleans Handicap on Marcho8. Grasshopper was timed in 1:15.40 for the breeze, and trainer Neil Howard said Grasshopper had finished his last three furlongs in about 36 seconds, with a final quarter-mile in slightly less than 24 seconds.

"Grasshopper worked real comfortable, well within himself," Howard said. "The last quarter, he did it really, really nice. He was reaching out beautifully."

Grasshopper made his first start after a five-month layoff in the Feb. 9 Mineshaft Handicap, and won by 2o1/2 lengths by virtue of a sweet stretch run.

"He's maintaining real nice," Howard said. "After the first race, that regression thing, everyone has a different opinion of it, but you can only watch the horse. He looks well and he's eating well."

Also working Monday was the 3-year-old filly Highest Class, who still is not certain to start in the Fair Grounds Oaks, part of the blockbuster March 8 card. Highest Class was a good third to Indian Blessing and Proud Spell last month in the Silverbulletday Stakes, but Howard remains convinced that Highest Class needs at least 1 1/8 miles to show her best, and 3-year-old filly stakes at Fair Grounds go no farther than 1 1/16 miles.

"It's still most likely that she'll run, but it's not definite yet," Howard said.

Howard also said that Brilliant will make his 2008 debut March 8 in the $500,000 Mervin Muniz Handicap. Brilliant, a multiple graded stakes winner, hasn't started since last August, but has logged a series of stamina-oriented workouts for his comeback race.

"He's had a couple nice three-quarters works," Howard said. "I don't know that he's the kind of horse that can win a race like that off the bench, but it'll be a good way to get him started."

Cat Ante, No Surgeon keep winning

Cat Ante set the bar high, and No Surgeon cleared it. And if you've never heard of either horse, you have not been paying enough attention to Louisiana-bred bottom-level claiming races.

On Feb. 19, 9-year-old Cat Ante became the first horse to win four races at the Fair Grounds meet, and on Saturday, 8-year-old No Surgeon matched him. Both horses have won four $5,000 statebred-restricted claiming races this season, but Cat Ante is a sprinter, and No Surgeon a route horse. Despite advanced age, both have been popular at the claim box. Cat Ante was claimed two races ago by trainer Al Sider, and No Surgeon was claimed by trainer Keith Bourgeois out of his most recent win, the fourth time he has been claimed this meet.

No Surgeon has 16 wins and 11 second-place finishes from 60 career races and had another big run in 2006, when he won or finished second in 10 consecutive starts.

Macho Again drops in sprint

Macho Again finished sixth as the 7-2 second-choice in the Lecomte Stakes, his 2008 and two-turn debut. He takes a step down in class while turning back to a sprint distance when he starts in the featured ninth race Thursday.

Trained by Dallas Stewart, Macho Again won a maiden race and finished second by a neck to Monba in an entry-level allowance race at the Churchill meet, but never seemed to get involved in the Lecomte. He was one of eight 3-year-olds entered in Thursday's six-furlong race and should be a solid favorite under Julien Leparoux.

Bronze Medal, an easy Fair Grounds maiden winner last out, may have the best chance at an upset.

* Jockey Donnie Meche, injured in a spill last month, returns to action this week.