06/20/2002 11:00PM

Bonus? Why cross state lines?


ELMONT, N.Y. - Racing fans disappointed by War Emblem's failed bid to become racing's 12th Triple Crown winner, take heart. There is another triple up for grabs this summer, the Big Apple Triple for New York-breds.

The three-race series for 3-year-olds begins Saturday at Belmont Park with the $100,000-added Mike Lee.

The seven-furlong Mike Lee will be followed by the $125,000-added New York Derby, a 1 1/16-mile race at Finger Lakes on July 27. The final leg is the $150,000-added Albany Handicap at Saratoga on Aug. 21. The Albany will be run at 1 1/8 miles.

A bonus worth $250,000 will be given to the owner of the horse who can sweep the series.

Like the Triple Crown, the Big Apple Triple, created in 1999, has proved difficult to win. Before the Mike Lee, New York Derby, and Albany were linked, no horse had managed to win all three. Since the races have been run under the Big Apple Triple banner, Image Maker came the closest to claiming the crown with victories in the first two legs.

The most distinguished nominee in this year's Big Apple Triple is Private Emblem, who is scheduled to arrive from Churchill Downs on Wednesday for the first leg.

Private Emblem, owned by James Cassels and Bob Zollars, is unraced since finishing 14th in the Kentucky Derby. Private Emblem's trainer, Steve Asmussen, gave the colt, who he said was "knocked out" following the Derby, a rest with the Mike Lee in mind.

Earlier this year, Private Emblem, who has $459,300 in earnings, generated plenty of positive headlines for the New York-bred program with his wins in the Grade 2 Arkansas Derby, Southwest Stakes, and Black Gold Handicap.

Last fall, Private Emblem, who was bred by Berkshire Stud and Oak Cliff Stable, looked like he could be a good one after an impressive maiden win against statebreds at Belmont Park. As a 2-year-old, the colt also finished second in Belmont's Sleepy Hollow and third in the Houston Texas Juvenile.

Private Emblem, a son of the hot sire Our Emblem, has won on dirt and turf and at distances ranging from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles at three different tracks. Asmussen is hoping that versatility works to the colt's advantage in the Big Apple Triple.

"I hope [the series] fits him well," said Asmussen, one of the country's leading trainers. "The distance is a variable and what makes it difficult is that it's run at three different tracks."

Private Emblem, said Asmussen, "may have accomplished more than the others, but this is still a tall order."

Fasig-Tipton expands sale

Fasig-Tipton delivered good news to New York breeders this week when the sales company announced the expansion of its New York-bred yearling auction to two days.

The preferred sale in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. will be held on Aug. 11 and 12. It was previously scheduled for just one day.

A record number of 185 New York-breds will be part of the catalogue. Last year, a then-record 141 yearlings were offered.

"This is the ultimate compliment to the New York-bred program," said Fasig-Tipton's president, Walt Robertson, "and we are delighted with this expansion."

Robertson noted that last year's sale extended well into the evening.

"The revised format is essential to properly market these New York-breds," Robertson said. "Several new New York-based operations will offer consignments, and most of our regular sellers are bringing greater numbers. Not only has the improvement shown in sire power and pedigree, we have been able to select from a superior physical crop of yearlings."

Dennis Brida, the executive director of the New York Thoroughbred Breeders, said the expansion of the sale is a boost to New York's breeding program.

"We at the NYTB are ecstatic about this increased opportunity for our members to buy and sell at Saratoga," Brida said. "Also, this demonstrates the improvement in the quality of New York-breds."

Both sessions will begin at 7:30 p.m. Catalogues will be available on July 17.

* On Saturday, the day the Mike Lee is run, the NYTB will host a prospective owners' seminar at Belmont Park in the film theater. The seminar is free and includes visits to the barns of two trainers. To register, call the NYTB's offices at (518) 587-0777.

* Consignors interested in entering the horses of racing age sale on Aug. 20 in Saratoga's paddock, contact Jeff Minton at (518) 587-3169.