04/25/2002 12:00AM

Asmussen's problem: Too many good ones

Email

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - It is something of a paradox, but one that Steve Asmussen welcomes.

Asked whether he believes he will be the leading trainer this spring at Churchill Downs - where last fall he topped the standings for the first time - Asmussen replies in the negative.

Why?

"Too many good horses," he said.

Hmmm . . . never heard that one. Actually, with so many stakes horses filling his 30 stalls in Barn 38 on the Churchill backstretch, there will be fewer opportunities for Asmussen to roll up victories in everyday races.

"I'd say that by early in the meet, I'll have a good idea of whether we can repeat," said Asmussen. "The thing is, a lot of the horses we had here last fall are back this spring, and they're going to have to run in much tougher company."

He reels off a half-dozen or so names, and you start getting the picture. There are his two Kentucky Derby horses, Private Emblem and Windward Passage. His filly for the Louisville Breeders' Cup, Descapate. His standout 3-year-old fillies, Cashier's Dream and Lake Lady. His stakes-winning 3-year-old Easyfromthegitgo. And his 2-year-old for the Three Chimneys Juvenile, Posse.

"For example, last fall, we had Lake Lady and Easyfromthegitgo here as maidens," said Asmussen, 36. "You don't get to run them through their conditions again, you know."

Yet considering his barn's depth, including an abundance of young horses, Asmussen still must be considered the favorite for leading trainer at the 52-day Churchill meet, which runs Saturday through July 7. Asmussen, whose massive stable also is dominant in Texas, has another 20 horses stabled at Keeneland, giving him 50 from which to draw during this meet. In all, he has about 200 active runners at his disposal, although he said he would not go out of his way to ship in horses merely to win the training title here.

"We'll probably have 50 different horses run at this meet," he said. "But it's not like last fall, when we had a lot of 2-year-olds ready to roll. The timing and circumstances were different last fall. I honestly don't believe we'll be as strong at this meet."

A handful of trainers can logically be expected to give Asmussen a run for his money: Dale Romans, Dallas Stewart, Elliott Walden, among them. But tell one of them that Asmussen is down on his chances, and all you're likely to get is a belly laugh or sarcastic scoff.

"What?" asked Walden. "He's only got 250 horses to draw from!"

That Asmussen has suddenly been thrust into the favorite's role at such a prestigious meet as Churchill's is illustrative of how quickly his stable has risen in stature in the last year. Last spring, with his stable split among Churchill, Lone Star, and Arlington, he won with 11 of 48 starters here. But after consolidating much of his better stock at Churchill for the fall, he not only led in wins (13), but also in starts (56).

With Arlington not scheduled to open until until June 5, Asmussen will be able to run his Keeneland string of horses here for much of the meet, giving him the starts necessary to be leading trainer at a relatively long stand such as this one.

No one should know better than Asmussen that he is beatable as he attempts to repeat as Churchill's leading trainer. He says to bet on him would be risky.

Yet to bet against seems even more so.