05/02/2006 12:00AM

Asmussen taking two swings


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Not to be greedy, but Steve Asmussen figures now that he has won a Kentucky Oaks, like he did last year with Summerly, he might as well make room on the mantel for a Kentucky Derby bauble, as well.

Whether it happens in Saturday's 132nd running of America's wildest horse race is very much a question mark. Asmussen, the nation's leading trainer in number of wins for three of the past four years, has brought a pair of 3-year-old colts to the Derby's doorstep, both racing for Texas construction company owner Mike McCarty, and both bearing just enough credentials to get them a second look.

Neither of them, however, has made any of the most recent short lists among this year's prime contenders.

Private Vow, a son of the Unbridled stallion Broken Vow, gained a following last fall after winning the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs. Combining the KJC with his earlier nine-length score in the Futurity at Belmont, Private Vow found himself with a serious Derby following when he emerged from winter training at Florida's Palm Meadows to run in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. When he finished seventh of 10, the bandwagon emptied like it was on fire.

Storm Treasure, a son of the Storm Cat stallion Storm Boot, won his maiden at Churchill Downs a few weeks before Private Vow's Kentucky Jockey Club. He warmed up for his 3-year-old campaign with a second-place finish in an allowance race at Gulfstream Park, then trained like a monster for the Tampa Bay Derby, in which he finished sixth of nine.

"I thought he'd win the Tampa Bay Derby and be on his way," Asmussen said late Tuesday morning, as he wrapped up work at his Churchill Downs barn. "But he just ran horrible."

Any excuses?

"I don't know," Asmussen said. "Maybe the laid-back atmosphere at Palm Meadows lulled them both to sleep. Too much walking."

Both colts got wake-up calls next time out, when they contested separate Kentucky Derby preps on April 15. Private Vow challenged Lawyer Ron in the Arkansas Derby and finished third, and Storm Treasure got what second there was behind the runaway Sinister Minister in the Blue Grass Stakes.

"At Keeneland, it can happen that the horse on the lead gets his way, but everybody else doesn't," Asmussen said of the Blue Grass. "So I thought, let's concede that and make one run. Have him back so far you're not in the dirt. Save all the ground, follow the fence, and pick up what you can."

If nothing else, Storm Treasure will send horse-lovers swooning when they see him on Saturday. This is the George Clooney of the field, an equine dreamboat whose chestnut coat radiates its own ultraviolet frequency. Under tack, Storm Treasure is one of those Thoroughbreds who puffs up, like a defensive back strapping on the pads.

"He's a majestic-looking horse," Asmussen said. "Big, strong, pretty. He's got a real gamesman attitude, too. The kind you need. Very few horses run at Keeneland and don't question what their job is about. The track just jams the heck out of them. But the day after the Blue Grass he felt good. I was very pleased. He's got a shot if they go too fast in front of him and he just keeps coming. But that's the question: Is it a War Emblem year or a Monarchos year?"

Asmussen tried both. In 2002, he saddled Arkansas Derby winner Private Emblem in the Derby, then watched helplessly as War Emblem led wire to wire, unchallenged through an opening half in 47.04. In 2001, when the Derby half-mile fraction shaded 45 and Monarchos devoured the speed, Asmussen had high hopes for his stretch-running Louisiana Derby winner, Fifty Stars.

"He had a perfect style," Asmussen said. "Made a big run and flattened out badly. I couldn't believe he did. Came back with a chip in his ankle the size of my thumb."

As for Private Vow, Asmussen said he thinks the colt has the seasoning for the Derby, even though he might find 1 1/4 miles a stretch.

"I think he's fast enough, but I'm worried he doesn't stay," he said. "So I think you pretty much hope for an inside draw, hope the dirt in his face rates him a bit, then hope the seas part and make one run at them.

"The one Derby variable the Arkansas horses have that the others don't is running against full fields, and all that goes with it," Asmussen said. "How long it takes to load, people doing things during the race you don't expect. And the Oaklawn crowds are big and loud. Everything's more unpredictable, which is what they get in the Kentucky Derby.

"Now, if you scheduled a work in the afternoon, that's what a California race looks like to me," he said, obviously jealous of Brother Derek's unimpeded journey to Louisville. " 'Any chance I could work between races? Dang, I just won the stake!' Talk about nice and clean and neat."

He has a point. Those runners who have experienced a taste of real combat might be better suited to Saturday's brawl, for among the words that have never been used to describe the Kentucky Derby are nice and clean and neat.