11/20/2004 1:00AM

Asmussen ties Van Berg win record

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Steve Asmussen tied Jack Van Berg's 24-year-old record for wins in a year by a trainer, notching his 496th victory of the season Saturday night at Sam Houston Race Park with Expect Will ($5.60) in the third race, the $50,000 Groovy Stakes. He had starters in the remaining eight races on the card, and also had two horses in at Delta Downs in Vinton, La.

With the entries, he was poised to whistle past Van Berg and into the record books with almost six weeks left in the year.

As of the third race at Sam Houston on Saturday, Asmussen had started 2032 horses this season, with an amazingly positive win-to-place ratio: only 320 of his horses have finished second. His starters have earned more than $12.5 million, the third-best national total this season, and Asmussen has won about 150 more races than his closest competitor, Scott Lake. Lake led the country in wins the last two seasons, but said he gave up his quest to break Van Berg's record this year.

Asmussen, with about 180 horses spread across the country, has actively pursued the record in 2004. He has been on track to catch Van Berg for months, and his momentum never slowed, with his strings of horses in the Midwest, Texas, and New York all churning out victories. Even with the torrents of starters, Asmussen has managed to maintain a 24-percent win rate, high by any standards.

Asmussen, who turned 39 on Thursday, has steadily expanded his stable in recent years, but he returned to his roots to break Van Berg's record. Asmussen began training Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses in New Mexico in 1986, and when Sunland's purses reached record levels last year, Asmussen established an outpost at the track.

Racing consumes Asmussen's whole family. His father, Keith, was a Quarter Horse jockey and keeps a hectic schedule breaking young horses at the family's El Primero Training Center outside Laredo, Texas. His mother, Marilyn, is a longtime trainer and horsewoman, while brother Cash is retired now after a long, successful international career as a jockey.

Asmussen said he would focus on narrowing his stable and upgrading its quality in coming seasons: He would love to be an annual player in the Triple Crown and the Breeders' Cup. But for an intense man who measures his success win by win, breaking Van Berg's record is a sweet triumph.

-additional reporting by Mary Rampellini