12/26/2007 12:00AM

Asmussen's feats merit an Eclipse

EmailPHILADELPHIA - The last few years, Eclipse Award voters have not given much thought to the trainer category. Todd Pletcher breaks all his own records. The voters write Pletcher's name in the assigned spot on the ballot. Pletcher wins another Eclipse.

This year, thought is required. Pletcher has broken just about all his records again. He will get votes. I don't think he should win.

In 2004, when Steve Asmussen set the record for wins (555) in a year, I voted for him, even though Pletcher had all the money numbers and all those stakes wins.

Well, Asmussen is not going to break his own wins record in 2007. He has 474 through Christmas, but his horses have earned $23.5 million, $4.4 million behind Pletcher. And he does not have nearly as many graded stakes horses in his barn as Pletcher.

Mostly, there is the matter of Curlin. All Asmussen did was take over a horse after a maiden win and, eight races later, send that horse out to dominate the Breeders' Cup Classic and clinch Horse of the Year.

Curlin won his first stakes on St. Patrick's Day, ran in all three Triple Crown races, ran in nothing but Grade 1 races from May to October and saved his best race for last.

Now, if you want to give Helen Pitts part of the Eclipse that seems fair. She got Curlin to the races. Curlin was so good winning his maiden at Gulfstream Park that the colt was sold after that win for somewhere between $3 million and $4omillion, depending on what you want to believe about that transaction.

Asmussen took over from there. Curlin won five stakes, including the Preakness when he ran down Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense when that did not seem possible. The colt was a photo from winning the Belmont Stakes (won by Pletcher's filly Rags to Riches) and third in the Derby and Haskell. He beat the seemingly unbeatable (at the time) Lawyer Ron (trained by Pletcher) in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. And absolutely crushed all the best horses in the Classic.

If the essence of big-race training is getting your horse to peak for the biggest race, clearly Asmussen did that with Curlin.

If it is taking an inexperienced colt with just three lifetime races and getting a win, a second, and a third in the Triple Crown races, Asmussen did that too.

This being the holiday season, I won't point out that our two heroes, Asmussen and Pletcher, both began 2007 on the sidelines, serving suspensions for violations of the medication rules. Just part of the game, I suppose.

Unlike baseball, where Mark "I'm not here to discuss the past'' McGwire has essentially been ostracized and barely registered a voting blip when first eligible for the Hall of Fame, racing continues to be a see no evil, hear no evil kind of sport.

But that is a story for another time. I am here to praise Asmussen. I already voted for him. And my ballot will be plunged into a fax machine shortly.

There were four $100,000 stakes at Fair Grounds last Saturday. Asmussen won them all. He trains the really good 2-year-olds Pyro and Kodiak Kowboy. He is in his usual battle with Scott Lake for the wins title. Now, he is a player in the major stakes.

The 555 wins were not enough to get Asmussen the Eclipse in 2004. Nearly 500 wins and nearly $25 million in earnings should be enough in 2007, even with the specter of the Pletcher stakes win and all that cash.

I actually voted Larry Jones second on my ballot. His inspired work with Hard Spun was, in its way, as good as Asmussen's with Curlin.

Curlin was clearly the more talented horse, yet Jones kept sending Hard Spun out there and, at the end of a very long year, Hard Spun delivered his best performance when second in the Classic.

When Hard Spun first began to get hyped last year, I thought it was more hype than performance. The colt simply had not run very fast. In fact, he had never earned a really big Beyer in the run-up to the Derby.

Then, on the big day, after that scorching workout that almost everybody thought was too fast, Hard Spun ran 18 horses out of the race. Because of the Street Sense move, most everybody missed that Hard Spun finished nearly six lengths ahead of the rest of the field. Yes, that was Curlin way back there in third.

An impatient ride by Mario Pino (who otherwise rode the horse perfectly in all year) in the Preakness did not help. A ridiculously patient ride by Garrett Gomez (a bad moment during a great year that should get him the Eclipse) cost the colt any chance in the Belmont.

But Hard Spun kept showing up and kept running hard. And it was Jones who kept the colt going and going.

There was the $2.5 million that Hard Spun won and the $3.2 million won by the rest of Jones's stable. He had a great year.

So, that's my exacta, Asmussen over Jones, just like the exacta in the BC Classic.