03/06/2008 12:00AM

Barn's quality gaining on its quantity

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NEW YORK - Saturday's Louisiana Derby Day card at Fair Grounds is the richest and perhaps the best program of racing so far this year, capping a triumphant return for the historic New Orleans track that just two winters ago was closed and faced an uncertain future after being ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

The card features six stakes races worth $2.2 million, including four compelling Grade 2 races: Grasshopper, Brass Hat, Magna Graduate, and Circular Quay in the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap; Daytona vs. eight in the $500,000 Mervin Muniz Memorial on the turf; a third straight meeting between Indian Blessing and Proud Spell in the $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks; and Pyro headlining the $600,000 Louisiana Derby, a race that also drew Hopeful winner Majestic Warrior and Futurity winner Tale of Ekati for their season debuts.

At the center of it all is Steve Asmussen, who is sending out seven horses in those four races, including favored Pyro in the main event. Asmussen had already shattered all records for training stakes winners at the meet before Pyro made his exhilarating return winning the Risen Star on Feb. 9. Through March 4, Asmussen has won with 74 of 269 starters at this Fair Grounds meet, a 27 percent victory clip, including a record 14 stakes, half of them on two days alone: He won four stakes on Dec. 22 and three more on Jan. 12.

There's nothing new about Asmussen winning races by the truckload. He has led the nation in victories four of the last seven years, including his record 555 in 2004, and his vast stable's earnings topped $10 million in each of those four years. Yet as recently as a year ago, he was known far more for volume than quality, and skeptics wondered about his handling of truly top-class horses.

He won his first Grade 1 in 1999, when Dreams Gallore took the Mother Goose at Belmont, but amid all his victories struggled to win the game's most important races. He was best known for precocious horses who didn't pan out, such as Cuvee and Posse. He won a Kentucky Oaks with Summerlin, but she was largely a disappointment thereafter. If you remove one horse from his resume, his record in Grade 1 races from 2004 through 2007 is 2 for 37.

That one horse, though, is Curlin, who gave him Grade 1 victories last year in the Preakness, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Breeders' Cup Classic and removed any doubts about the trainer's ability to play at the very highest level of the game. While his services have always been in demand, Asmussen is now getting an even higher grade of horses. In addition to Pyro, he has two other top-20 Derby prospects this year in Z Fortune, the Risen Star runner-up, and Zayat stablemate J Be K, an uncoupled entrant in the Louisiana Derby. J Be K has an iffy pedigree for classic success but is brilliantly quick and will ensure a fast pace for Pyro to run at Saturday.

Pyro's last-to-first victory in the Risen Star, despite traffic problems and a pokey pace, was the most visually impressive performance by a Derby candidate this year. It made him the 5-1 favorite among the 23 individual betting interests in the first Kentucky Derby Future Wager pool last month - a point lower than undefeated War Pass, who beat him three times last year.

Pyro basically was asked and allowed to run for only a quarter of a mile in the Risen Star, blowing past overmatched rivals once turned loose, but the competition gets a lot tougher starting Saturday. He has a recency and fitness edge, with that prep over the track, but he may have to get going earlier so as not to lose contact with the field. There's also no guarantee that he's going to make up the gap on War Pass by May just because the races are getting longer: He was closing in on the 2-year-old champion in those three defeats, but none was really close, and he lost them by a combined 13 lengths.

If Curlin stays sound and Pyro does win the Derby, Asmussen could join a very short list of trainers whose shed rows have simultaneously housed both a reigning Horse of the Year and a Kentucky Derby winner. Bob Baffert had the 2001 Horse of the Year in Point Given and the 2002 Derby winner in War Emblem, but Point Given was retired six months before War Emblem joined his string. Lucien Laurin technically had both, but with one horse - Secretariat was the Horse of the Year as a 2-year-old in 1972 and returned to win the Derby.

To find a true parallel, you have to go back 60 years, to Ben Jones and Calumet Farms: Armed was the Horse of the Year in 1947 and was still racing when Citation won the 1948 Kentucky Derby. That would be pretty good company for Asmussen, who only a year ago was praised for the quantity rather than quality of his work.