11/19/2004 12:00AM

Asmussen's totals something special


NEW YORK - By the time you read this, Steve Asmussen may already have broken Jack Van Berg's record of 496 victories by a trainer in one year. As of Friday morning, Asmussen was up to 490 winners from 2006 starters in the first 322 days of the year - an average of 1.5 winners from 6.2 starters every single day of 2004, a pace that should have him over the 500 mark before December.

It is a significant achievement, because this is not one of those records that has been rendered meaningless by economic inflation, modern technology, or changes in the way the game is played. Asmussen is about to shatter a mark that has stood for 28 years. Since Van Berg's 496 in 1976, no one exceeded 349 until Scott Lake led the nation with 407 in 2001. Asmussen tied that mark winning the title in 2002, and Lake fell 42 short of Van Berg's mark when he topped the standings with 454 last year.

Asmussen and Lake are two of only eight trainers who have topped the standings over the last 37 years. During that span, Dale Baird won 15 titles to Van Berg's nine, with D. Wayne Lukas winning four, Lake three, King Leatherbury two, and Mario Beneito, Richard Dutrow, and Asmussen atop the leader board once each.

Unlike most earnings marks, which continue to fall as inflation increases the gross number of purse dollars, it could be argued that victories are increasingly harder to rack up. Horses are making fewer starts per year than they used to - 10.2 starts per year when Van Berg set his mark in 1976, as opposed to 6.8 starts per year in 2003. Those fewer starts do translate to smaller fields - 8.9 starters per race in 1976 as opposed to 8.2 last year.

The only reason that field size has not decreased as sharply as starts per horse is that many fewer races being run each year. When Lukas led the nation with 305 victories in 1989, there were 74,071 races run in the United States. This year, there will be about 54,000 races, a decline of over 25 percent. Think of it this way: In 1989, Lukas won one out of every 243 races run in the country, and this year Asmussen will have won about one of every 110.

These numbers do not minimize Lukas's achievements at all, because no one has ever matched the combination of victories and purses that Lukas put together during his four-year run as the national victories leader from 1987 through 1990. Lukas was winning Grade 1 races left and right during that span, and his earnings in each of those years ranged from $14.5 million to $17.8 million. (Lukas led the nation in earnings an astounding 14 times in the 15 years from 1983 through 1997.) In the 14 years since Lukas last led in victories, only Asmussen in 2002 won that title while topping $10 million in purses.

Asmussen is on pace to exceed $13 million this year with just four victories at the Grade 1 or 2 level: Lady Tak in the Ballerina and Gallant Bloom, Bwana Charlie in the Amsterdam, and Quintons Gold Rush in the Lexington. He also won nine Grade 3 races, with those horses plus Academic Angel, Dazzle Me, Lunarpal, Primal Storm, Private Emblem, Sister Swank, and Spanish Empire.

Since the Eclipse Awards began in 1971, the victories leader has been the Eclipse winner only twice - Van Berg in 1984 and Lukas in 1987. That pattern is likely to continue this year. While Asmussen's combination of victories and purses is the most impressive since Lukas's, Todd Pletcher is deservedly the odds-on favorite to win his first Eclipse. While Pletcher's 220 victories so far this year are fewer than half of Asmussen's, he has a higher winning percentage, a $4 million lead in earnings with 1,100 fewer starts, and 40 graded stakes victories, including two Breeders' Cup races.

Perhaps there should be another way of honoring national victories leader. Baird, for example, belongs in racing's Hall of Fame for winning over 9,000 races in his career, over 2,700 more than anyone else in the sport's history. He has never won the training award and almost certainly never will, but he merits consideration for a special Eclipse or an Award of Merit - as well as a berth in the Hall.