01/01/2003 12:00AM

Bragging rights beat an ol' belt buckle

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ARCADIA, Calif. - By winning his first national championship, Steve Asmussen has put the final touch on a dream season. His 407 victories in 2002 outlasted the relentless defending champ, Scott Lake, who ended the year with 399 winners. In addition, Asmussen ranked third in stable earnings, behind only Bobby Frankel and Bob Baffert, giving him the best all-around record among North American trainers.

So what does Asmussen get for his achievement? A handsome plaque? A big ol' belt buckle? A tickertape parade through the streets of his hometown of Gettysburg, S.D.?

He gets nothing. Zip. Nada. Not even a hearty handshake.

Of course, the Asmussen clan was quick to pay homage, even though Steve is not the first champion in the family. Big brother Cash was North America's outstanding apprentice in 1979, then ventured to Europe, where he led the French standings five times. Keith and Marilyn Asmussen, who operate a training center near Laredo, Texas, are the proud parents.

For some reason, though, the horse racing establishment chooses to ignore the achievements of its year-end statistical leaders. This makes no sense, since all year long horse racing does nothing but keep track of national standings, making a big deal of the numbers right up to the final hour. After that, the only site of recognition is in the pages of the American Racing Manual.

The leading trainer of winners gets the shortest shrift of all. Call it the Dale Baird Effect, caused by the West Virginia owner-trainer who runs a conveyor belt of cheap stock down the throats of his neighbors, which for many years rendered the national standings moot. Between 1979 and 1999, Baird won the title 13 times with horses whose names disappeared beneath all the numbers.

There was a time, in the dank and misty past, when the trainer with the most winners was considered the true champion. Money was important, make no mistake, but in the days when there were far fewer racing opportunities, winning the most races in North America was an achievement of considerable note. Most of the great ones can be found on the list, from James Rowe, Guy Bedwell, and Sam Hildreth, to Bill Molter, Red McDaniel, and Tennessee Wright in more recent times.

Of course, they received the same thing Asmussen will get for his title.

That matters not to his three sons, Keith James, age 4; Darren, 2; and 2-month-old Erik. They were happily underfoot on New Year's Day when Asmussen spoke from his winter home in New Orleans, where he is supervising his Fair Grounds string. There is also an Asmussen stable at Sam Houston in Texas, a smaller contingent at Gulfstream Park in Miami, Fla., and an Oaklawn Park group that is getting ready to ship to Hot Springs, Ark. In other words, 2003 begins with business as usual.

The chronicle of Asmussen's success in 2002 is spread out over the entire Midwest, with occasional forays eastward, facilitated by a staff of assistants who are required to know every inch of the operation. Asmussen went through the list with pride.

"There'd be three stables going at any one time," Asmussen said. "We couldn't have done it without Scott Blasi, Sean Talbot, and Mike Burgess, and Tony Mathiasen would travel with horses we'd send other places.

"Scott has been with me as long as I've been doing this," Asmussen added. "He was there when we had the whole stable in front of us, eight years ago, when we took 17 head into the Fair Grounds."

Unlike the Baird model - the complete domination of a backwater circuit - Asmussen is taking a page out of the Jack Van Berg book. The legendary Nebraskan set up satellite stables throughout the Midwest, with assistants like Bill Mott and Frank Brothers running their own barns, but always aware that Big Jack was the man in charge. Van Berg also sought out quality to augment quantity, and in 1976 he became the first trainer in 48 years to lead both earnings and winners standings. That year, the Eclipse Award for trainer went to Lazaro Barrera.

"I'm pleased about the number of winners," Asmussen said of his 2002 season. "But I'm especially proud of our earnings total. We've been trying to point in that direction."

A large part of the Asmussen record revolves around 3-year-olds. Such young runners as Snuck In, Fifty Stars, Private Emblem, and Easyfromthegitgo have given him a taste of the big show. And while he has yet to contend in a Triple Crown race, it would seem to be only a matter of time before he has made his mark in the classics.

Until then, Asmussen will need to be content with the title of champion without portfolio. If it bothered him, he didn't let it show.

"Don't forget," Asmussen said, "I get story-telling rights at the coffee shop."