04/10/2002 11:00PM

Asmussen's barn struts its stuff

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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. - The strength of trainer Steve Asmussen's current 3-year-old crop will be on display Saturday in the Grade 2, $500,000 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Asmussen will send out both Private Emblem and Windward Passage in the race, and they figure to vie for favoritism with Kentucky shipper Mr. Mellon.

One of Asmussen's other top 3-year-olds, Grade 2 Louisiana Derby runner-up Easyfromthegitgo, is being pointed for the Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland on April 20.

Private Emblem and Windward Passage could both land in the Kentucky Derby with good performances Saturday. "We're looking to move them in that direction," said Asmussen.

It seems both colts are coming into their own at the right time.

Private Emblem, who has made six career starts, comes into the Arkansas Derby on the heels of back-to-back stakes wins, while Windward Passage, who also has started six times, became sire Captain Bodgit's first stakes winner in his last start when he won the Grade 3 Rebel at Oaklawn.

"Private Emblem is a large-framed colt who still has some developing to do," said Asmussen. "He still hasn't filled out the full frame of who he is going to be. I am pleased with the weight he's holding, and how he has been training."

In his final prep April 1 for the Arkansas Derby, the colt worked seven furlongs in a sharp 1:26.20 at Oaklawn. "He's always been brilliant when we've worked him," Asmussen said. "I've never led him over a time that I thought he would get outrun."

Asmussen calls Windward Passage a "stayer," and said that races like the Arkansas Derby have been what his connections have been awaiting since he won his maiden at 1 1/16 miles last November at Churchill Downs.

Honeybee rematch in Althea

Bedanken, Cozy Susie, and Sarah Jade, the first three finishers in the Grade 3, $75,000 Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn on March 9, all return to action Saturday on the undercard in the $50,000 Althea Stakes.

The one-mile race for 3-year-old fillies has drawn 11.

Bedanken is shooting for her fifth straight win and her third in a stakes. In her first local start this meet she won the $50,000 Dixie Belle Stakes over six furlongs Jan. 25. She stretched out around two turns for the first time in the Honeybee, and won by 2 1/4 lengths over Cozy Susie.

Bedanken has trained well since the Honeybee, and had been a candidate for the Grade 2, $200,000 Fantasy on Friday. But her connections opted to run her stablemate, the unbeaten See How She Runs, instead. Don Pettinger has the mount on Bedanken for Pin Oak Stable and trainer Donnie Von Hemel.

Cozy Susie, whose two career wins have come on turf, handled the main track well in the Honeybee, setting the pace before being overtaken by Bedanken. She has worked well since that race, and figures to be closer to Bedanken at the wire Saturday.

The Althea has also drawn Supreme Discovery, who is unbeaten in three career starts, and Sly Kona, a three-time stakes winner this winter at Sam Houston Race Park in Houston.

"The flat mile is a very good distance for Sly Kona," said Asmussen, who has given the mount to Donnie Meche.

Handle and attendance up

Oaklawn will close out what has been a strong meet Saturday. The track has increased purses four times this season, thanks to increased handle. Entering its most important week of racing Wednesday, handle on the track's races this meet had averaged $4.6 million a day, with $3.6 million of that total generated offtrack. Last year at this time, handle on the track's races averaged $4.1 million.

Daily attendance has averaged 11,481, up from 10,622 a year ago. Oaklawn has also seen extensive growth on Instant Racing, a parimutuel game that plays like a slot machine. Handle this meet has averaged $119,844 a day, a 230 percent increase over the $31,540 handled daily on the machines in 2001.