04/29/2008 12:00AM

Asmussen tries to go 6 for 7


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Trainer Steve Asmussen has a sharp memory when it comes to keeping tabs on his vast stable, which extends throughout much of the country and now into Canada. He can recall what a $10,000 claimer running at Lone Star did for him the previous day as easily as he could describe the workout routines of Kentucky Derby hopefuls Pyro and Z Fortune.

But when asked if he knew how many times he had won the Kentucky Breeders' Cup Stakes at Churchill Downs, Thursday's co-feature at Churchill Downs, even he couldn't quite recall.

He has won it five times, specifically five times over the last six years. Asmussen scored with Posse (2002), Cuvee (2003), Lunarpal (2004), Datrick (2006), and Rated Fiesty (2007).

Thursday he will gun for his sixth victory in the race, starting the 3-1 morning-line favorite Merkel against seven other 2-year-olds in the Grade 3, five-furlong dash, the first graded stakes race for 2-year-olds this year.

With a purse of $150,000, the Kentucky Breeders' Cup drew a good field, drawing some flashy maiden winners from the early part of the Keeneland spring meet, as well as Laurel invader Essenceofthemoon and a couple of first-time starters.

Although Merkel was professional in winning his debut April 4 - outbreaking the field and dominating on the lead to win by 3 1/2 lengths - his winning time of 50.95 seconds for 4 1/2 furlongs was slower than the times of three other horses in the Kentucky Breeders' Cup that scored at first asking at Keeneland.

Dicey Riley, Run Away and Hide, and Garden District posted winning times of 50.66 seconds, 50.73, and 50.86, respectively.

Working against Merkel is his rail draw, a starting position that causes some inexperienced horses to break slowly or inward.

"It isn't the spot I would have picked," Asmussen said.

Merkel is owned by Heiligbrodt Racing Stable, which teamed with Asmussen to win 4 of his 5 Kentucky Breeders' Cups, with Cuvee being the exception. Shaun Bridgmohan rides.

Run Away and Hide, the 7-2 second choice on the morning line, also figures prominently, having won a maiden race by 3 1/4 lengths at Keeneland on April 18. He is a fast and talented colt, although trainer Ronny Werner said, "I'm a little concerned wheeling back a little quicker than I would have liked."

Garden District, one of two fillies entered, will seek to beat the boys, as Rated Fiesty did in this race last year. Garden District closed from third to win her lone start April 10, and figures to benefit from a contested pace.