02/06/2007 12:00AM

Asmussen's talent pool runs deeper


NEW ORLEANS - It's 9:15 on Monday morning at Fair Grounds, and the Steve Asmussen barn radiated all the tranquility of a midtown Manhattan rush hour. Horses being removed from automated walking machines, baths given, blood samples taken, exercise riders reporting back after routine gallops - 20 people going 30 directions, most with some piece of information to convey.

Typical day.

Asmussen's far-flung operation grew into one of the most prolific in the country several years ago. Things hum along on the surface now the same as usual, but there are differences this season. There's the lingering taste of Asmussen's recently concluded six-month suspension for a medication violation last summer at Evangeline Downs. Asmussen took his penalty without appealing and, understandably, disdains speaking publicly about the matter: He served his time - it's time to move on.

But here's another change. Asmussen has been a regular in Fair Grounds's 3-year-old stakes for several years, winning the 2001 Louisiana Derby with Fifty Stars, finishing third in the race the next year with Easyfromthegitgo, who earlier that meet had won the Lecomte Stakes. Back then, Asmussen wondered how it would be to have not one overachieving 3-year-old but several high-end prospects with the substance to think about major stakes races. That time has come.

Tiz Wonderful, a standout at age 2, went down with an injury last month, but Asmussen now calls on a capable bench. Forty Grams has impressively won consecutive one-mile dirt races at this meet, and starts next in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. Saturday, Zanjero makes his 3-year-old debut here in the Risen Star - one of four horses Asmussen has for the card's five stakes - and Asmussen has been thinking Derby - as in Kentucky, not Louisiana - with Zanjero for months.

"He's a $700,000 yearling, and he looks like a $700,000 yearling," Asmussen said Tuesday morning. Zanjero is by Cherokee Run, more of a sprint and middle-distance sire, but out of a mare by A.P. Indy, and the female side of his family seems to have come to the fore.

"He's very big, and you'd think he'd come along later in [his 2-year-old] year," said Asmussen.

Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds, a longtime Asmussen client, Zanjero might legitimately belong on the Kentucky Derby trail. He also stands a good chance of losing the Risen Star. Asmussen said he believes Fair Grounds's tight turns might not be ideal for Zanjero. Moreover, Zanjero hasn't started since he finished second to Nobiz Like Shobiz in the Remsen Stakes on Nov. 25 at Aqueduct, and his training pattern during a wet New Orleans winter has not been perfect. The point, however, is that horses like Zanjero and Forty Grams - to say nothing of the undefeated Tiz Wonderful, a $475,000 purchase - give Asmussen raw materials he lacked in the past.

Asmussen treads carefully talking about his newfound firepower. He has intense loyalty to longtime owners such as Bill Heiligbrodt, and Jim Cassels and Bob Zollars, Fifty Stars's owners. But there's no denying that adding to his client roster names like the Padua Stables of Satish Sanan, the Stonestreet Stable of Jess Jackson, and others has vaulted Asmussen onto a higher plane.

"The opportunity we've been given is amazing," Asmussen said. "We've been very fortunate to have the quality of pedigree we do now."

The ascendancy, according to Asmussen, traces to his first well-known horse, Valid Expectations - owned by another longtime client, the Ackerley Brothers.

"He got me to where I am," Asmussen said. "I remember when they bought him for $225,000 in 1995. I was like, 'Oh my God.' He was the step to the Easyfromthegitgos, the Lady Taks, Summerly winning the [Kentucky] Oaks. It's all got us under consideration for Classic hopefuls."

Zanjero went with Asmussen's best 2-year-olds to Saratoga last summer, where he finished fifth in his debut and a distant second in his second start. Those were decent enough sprint tries for a horse that wanted to go farther, but Asmussen had worked Zanjero with some of his fastest young horses, and Zanjero had held his own.

"They were encouraging races, but a little disappointing," he said. "I hoped he could win."

Zanjero did win his third start, a two-turn maiden race over Polytrack at Keeneland, and subsequently was pre-entered in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, but was excluded from that race after it was oversubscribed. Instead, he took a major step forward with a strong come-from-behind allowance victory at Churchill Downs over a well-regarded Bobby Frankel-trained colt named First Defence. Zanjero proved no match for Nobiz Like Shobiz in the Remsen, but finished strongly to be a clear second.

And now comes his 3-year-old season. In fact, the Risen Star marks Zanjero's first start for Asmussen, since all his previous races occurred during Asmussen's suspension, when assistant trainer Scott Blasi ran the operation. Asmussen is back now. Things in his barn are the same - but maybe even better.