01/06/2004 12:00AM

Big plans for Spanish Empire


NEW ORLEANS - When Spanish Empire joined Steve Asmussen's stable last summer, Asmussen believed he was getting a horse to run at Louisiana Downs. Instead, he might have a horse for the New Orleans Handicap.

Spanish Empire turned in a visually impressive performance winning the $60,000 Louisiana Handicap over Tenpins last Friday, and the mathematicians agreed. Spanish Empire received a 109 Beyer Speed Figure for winning the Louisiana, and as assistant trainer Scott Blasi walked into Asmussen's barn office Tuesday morning, he cautioned Asmussen, "Don't run him back too fast."

But whether Spanish Empire "bounces" or not, Asmussen isn't going to sit on the horse. He believes Spanish Empire will benefit from a consistent racing schedule, and plans to run him back Feb. 1 in the Grade 3 Whirlaway Handicap here.

"He could regress just a tad, but it should be pretty easy, being right here, to get him to bounce back and run a lifetime best for the big money," Asmussen said.

The big money is the $500,000 New Orleans Handicap on Feb. 29, and it is not a race anyone had in mind for Spanish Empire just a few months ago. A leggy son of Pleasant Colony, Spanish Empire fetched $400,000 as a yearling, but showed nothing in three starts at age 2, and needed seven tries to win his maiden. When he did win, it was over just five opponents in the Saratoga slop, and after another bad loss in a turf race, Spanish Empire was demoted to the minor leagues.

He moved from the barn of Nick Zito into Asmussen's care, and was headed for a first-level allowance race at Louisiana Downs when a couple positive workouts convinced Asmussen to divert Spanish Empire to Keeneland. There he won an entry-level allowance race by more than nine lengths, and came back with a nose win at 10 furlongs in a Churchill allowance.

"The first race was real good; the second one wasn't so good," Asmussen said. "Now, I'm as excited as hell about him."

Swift work by Polish Rifle

On Monday, Asmussen sent out Polish Rifle, his colt for the Jan. 24 Lecomte Stakes, to work a strong six furlongs. There is no question Polish Rifle, who was ridden by Shane Sellers, worked very fast for this racetrack, but just how fast depends on who was holding a watch. Polish Rifle was officially timed in 1:11.60 working from the gate, but Asmussen said he caught the colt in 1:12.18.

"I wanted him to really do something in that work," Asmussen said. "He's a big old boy that had been going along easy, and he needed to do something like this. I had wanted more from his last work, but we didn't get it, which is why we took him to the gate this time."

Polish Rifle, who was privately purchased by William Heiligbrodt and Stonerside Stable, has never started for Asmussen. After winning the Maryland Million Nursery by more than nine lengths, he finished second behind Tapit in the Laurel Futurity, his most recent race.

Howard high on Political Risk

Political Risk finished third in his comeback race here last weekend, but his effort left trainer Neil Howard happy and thinking about upcoming stakes races for the colt.

Political Risk showed enough talent here last winter to have Howard thinking in terms of Triple Crown races, but Political Risk's schedule was thrown off by a minor sickness and a lack of racing opportunities. Just after he impressively won his first start at two turns, Political Risk was diagnosed with a bone chip, had surgery, and was given a lengthy period of recovery.

The potential remains, however, and Political Risk ran well in defeat here Sunday, closing ground in the stretch of a quickly run six-furlong race, finishing a half-length behind the winner, a seasoned horse named Grin and Frown.

"We know he's not a sprinter, so I was pleased with the way he ran, and the main thing is he came out of the race in good shape," Howard said. "I looked at it like the equivalent of giving him four works. Now he can really go forward."

Ideally, Political Risk would come back in an allowance race at two turns. "But as plan B, we're going to keep him eligible for the Whirlaway," Howard said. "I don't know if he'd be able to win a race like that off only a six-furlong race, but it would give us an idea of where to go with him."

Dynamia shows potential

Michael Dickinson has four turf horses stabled at Fair Grounds for the winter. Three ran last week and two won; the first-time starter Cockleshell, and Dynamia, who looked like a stakes prospect, scoring a 4 1/2-length maiden win Saturday.

By Dynaformer, Dynamia is a John Chandler homebred from the family of Cetewayo, and though "she's not very big, she can run," Dickinson said.

Dynamia raced close to a swift pace and easily drew away from her opponents in the stretch run.

"She'll run once more at Fair Grounds, in an allowance race, and then we'll take her up north," Dickinson said.

Somebody's watching over Lanerie

Rick Mocklin, the agent for jockey Corey Lanerie, recalls Lanerie taking two significant spills in the last eight years. Lanerie equaled that total in two days last weekend, but after taking off his mounts Monday, he's scheduled to ride again Thursday.

In last Friday's fifth race, Lanerie fell when his mount, County Creek, broke down on the far turn. Saturday, on the far turn of the turf course, Peacock Sally clipped heels and fell, and down went Lanerie again.

"I told him whatever guardian angel he's got watching over him, he's doing good work," Mocklin said.