02/06/2002 1:00AM

Asmussen taking three shots at one-mile Southwest


HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - Richest Half, who closed with a rush to win the $50,000 Mountain Valley Stakes here Jan. 26, is one of three colts trainer Steve Asmussen is pointing to the $75,000 Southwest at Oaklawn Park on March 2. He also plans to start Private Emblem, winner of the $75,000 Black Gold Handicap at Fair Grounds on Jan. 4, and Interminable Gold, winner of the $148,000 Riley Allison Futurity at Sunland Park.

The Southwest is a one-mile race, and the first of two local preps for Grade 2, $500,000 Arkansas Derby on April 13. Other top contenders for the Southwest include Rylstone, who is trained by Lynn Whiting; Clergy, who is based at Fair Grounds with trainer Frank Brothers; and Cojet, runner-up in the Mountain Valley for trainer Bob Holthus.

Asmussen hopes Oaklawn's shorter stretch run in one-mile races will help Richest Half - who has never lost sprinting - master two turns. The colt's one defeat in five career starts came routing, when he finished sixth in the $150,000 Texan Juvenile at Sam Houston Race Park on Dec. 1.

"The two-turn race in Houston proved to be a very tough race," said Asmussen, noting that Richest Half gave up seasoning to such talented colts as winner Jeremiah Jack, runner-up French Assault, and third-place finisher Private Emblem, who in his next start won the Black Gold.

Private Emblem will start in the Southwest to avoid a conflict with stablemate Easyfromthegitgo, winner of the $100,000 Lecomte at Fair Grounds, who like Private Emblem is owned by James Cassels and Bob Zollars. Asmussen said Easyfromthegitgo will run next in the $150,000 Risen Star Feb. 17 at Fair Grounds.

"There is absolutely no incentive to run them both in the Risen Star," Asmussen said.

The trainer's final bullet for the Southwest, Interminable Gold, is "dying for more ground," he said.

Asmussen has a greater presence in Hot Springs this season than last year, when he had 12 horses stabled at the track. "We have 30 head there," said the trainer, who decided to bring more horses to Oaklawn this year because of the improved purse structure and "positive" feel at this meet.

Vergennes to Connally Cup

Asmussen said that Vergennes, who won last Friday night's featured turf allowance at Sam Houston, is to make his next start in the $200,000 Connally Breeders' Cup Turf there on Feb. 23.

Vergennes used front-running tactics to earn most of his $700,000 bankroll, but in last week's allowance win he stalked the pace. "He's a strong-willed horse, and we just wanted him to leave the gate not thinking he has to be on the lead," said Asmussen. "We were glad to get that race under his belt."

In addition to Vergennes, Asmussen plans to start Orleans Road in the Connally. "He's a pure closer, which is a dimension Vergennes isn't," he said.

Others probable for the 1 1/8-mile Connally are Schaumburg, second to Vergennes last Friday; Mystery Giver, winner of the recent Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup Handicap; and Candid Glen, who won the Connally in 2001. In his last start, Candid Glen finished third in the Fair Grounds BC.

"He ran a big race last out," said Andrew Leggio, who trains Candid Glen. "He got into a little traffic jam. I don't know if he would have beaten the winner, but I think he would have been second."

Asmussen rakes it in

Asmussen, who leads the Sam Houston standings with 38 wins, will soon pass his stable's meet earnings from all of last season, which were $547,267. So far this meet, which runs through March 31, Asmussen's charges have earned $537,265.

"I think there have been better financial opportunities in Houston this meet," said Asmussen. "The better races are going for the horses."

* In a new track policy, jockey agents based at Sam Houston must enter horses by 9:30 a.m. Central, while trainers can make entries until closing. The policy went into effect last Saturday.