01/09/2008 1:00AM

Asmussen's task tougher this time


If it seems like Steve Asmussen is winning all the stakes races at Fair Grounds, well, perception in this case is not far from reality.

The Asmussen-trained Stormin Baghdad won the opening-day Thanksgiving Handicap, and things have snowballed from there. So far at the meet there have been 10 stakes not restricted to Louisiana-breds or horses with owners from a particular state, and Asmussen has won six of them. He has eight stakes victories in all so far at Fair Grounds, and won all four stakes races on a multi-stakes sprint bonanza Dec. 22. But even Asmussen concedes a sweep of the six stakes races scheduled for this Saturday is impossible.

"Well, we don't have a horse for each race, so we can't win all of them this time," he said.

The Asmussen barn does have horses - multiple horses in several cases - for five of the Saturday stakes, but unlike Dec. 22, when all the winners fit their spots like a glove, the Saturday entries don't appear to be slam dunks.

Asmussen's pair for the Gaudin Memorial, Stormin Baghdad and Gunfight, look good, but they'll have to get by the talented Semaphore Man.

Storm Treasure will be a mid-priced shot in the Colonel Bradley, while Real Dandy looks like a longshot to win the Louisiana Handicap.

Asmussen has two fillies for the Tiffany Lass, including Diamondaire, who will be among the favorites, and two more for the featured Lecomte, the first Fair Grounds 3-year-old stakes race of the year.

While Star Defender has only a slow-ish Remington Park maiden win to his credit, Asmussen's other horse, Z Fortune, looks interesting.

Z Fortune, one of about 15 horses Asmussen trains for mega-owner Ahmed Zayat, will make his first start outside the New York-bred ranks, but earned a trip to Fair Grounds by easily winning his first two races in statebred-restricted competition. Z Fortune debuted with a sharp seven-furlong victory at Belmont, and won by almost five lengths when stretched to two turns Dec. 7 at Aqueduct.

"He's got talent, but he's got a long way to go," Asmussen said. "He's a big, tall, long horse. He ran extremely well first time out, and we ran him back in the New York 'a-other-than' to kind of confirm his form. He's going to need to continue to develop and move forward."

Rider Husbands in from Canada

Patrick Husbands, Canada's Sovereign Award-winning rider in 2007, arrived in New Orleans on Monday, and is set to begin accepting mounts on Friday. Husbands has ridden two stakes horses at Fair Grounds, but never has spent an extended period of time at the track. He rode three seasons ago at Gulfstream Park, but in years since has gone home to his native Barbados for a winter break.

"The Woodbine meet is a serious grind for nine months," Husbands said, reached by phone on Wednesday. "I've been going home to spend some time with family and friends, then going back the first week of March to Woodbine."

There are several Canadian outfits at Fair Grounds, and Husbands hopes to pick up business from trainers Josie Carroll and Malcolm Pierce. But the main reason for his presence is trainer Mark Casse's new Fair Grounds string, which soon enough will house some highly promising 3-year-olds.

"Mark said to me, 'I have so many good 3-year-olds, I need you to be there,' " Husbands said.

And when the trainer who earned the seventh-highest amount of purses in North America during 2007 sends out a call, it is not a bad idea to heed it.

Plans change for Miner's Claim

Casse, who has started only a handful of horses at the meet, still has all his best young prospects at his training center near Ocala, Fla., but that is about to change, with a shipment of 3-year-olds due to arrive in New Orleans next week. Unfortunately for Fair Grounds, Casse's top male prospect, Miner's Claim, will not be among them.

Casse in the fall had mentioned Fair Grounds as a likely comeback spot for Miner's Claim, who won both his starts last year at Woodbine, but Miner's Claim now is more likely to make his 3-year-old debut at Turfway Park.

"He isn't coming along as fast as I thought," Casse said. "I gave him a little time, and then he missed a little time, so we're going to run him in the Battaglia [Stakes], and then run him in the Lane's End. That's going to keep him on the Polytrack."

Turf War, who dead-heated for first in the Delta Jackpot, will probably ship into Fair Grounds, but is likely to make his next start in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. Casse, however, is likely to have two starters for next month's Risen Star, with Briarwood Circle and the less accomplished Bonanza scheduled to ship in next week.

Shipping with the two colts will be Clearly Foxy, who is scheduled to make her 3-year-old debut in the Silverbulletday Stakes. Clearly Foxy won both her starts at Woodbine, including the Natalma Stakes, and finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies in her most recent start.

Bluehard one to watch

The Louisiana-bred 3-year-old Bluehard bears watching. Bluehard, a son of Smart Strike, needed four tries to win a maiden race, but scored an 11 1/2-length victory on Friday, running six furlongs in a significantly faster time than open 2-year-old allowance horses had the race before.

Bluehard lost by a mile in his first two starts, but began showing much more in the afternoon when trainer Frank Leggio began racing him without blinkers.

"Believe it or not, we thought highly of the horse from the beginning," Leggio said. "I took the blinkers off of him, we ran him one time, and he showed what we thought he could do, but he was still goofing around. He got everything together this time."

Leggio said he had no firm plans for Bluehard.

"We've got a couple options to look at right now," he said.