03/06/2008 12:00AM

Bridgmohan key part of potent combo

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Chuck Saus
Shaun Bridgmohan, 28, will ride Pyro in Saturday?s Louisiana Derby, the marquee race of the Fair Grounds meet.

A quarter-mile into the seventh race last Friday at Fair Grounds, an older maiden named Visible Truth was locked in a heated pace battle after breaking from the rail in a six-furlong sprint. Visible Truth had raced once before, starting more than a year ago in California. Horses with speed coming back from long layoffs are notorious for going too fast and coming up short. Given their head for the first time in a long time, they tend to run themselves silly.

So it was strange to see Visible Truth's jockey subtly easing his horse off the pace partway around the far turn. The usual tactic is to hold one's position on the fence, and both horses and riders generally are unwilling to deviate from the usual. But this one did. Coaxed back off the testing pace, Visible Truth waited for his cue, came around the tiring speed horses in the stretch, and went on to win by almost five lengths.

The winning connections were more than a little familiar to those paying attention to the Fair Grounds meet: Jockey Shaun Bridgmohan for trainer Steve Asmussen.

The pair have formed a team this winter that has been almost unstoppable. Asmussen is blowing a hole in the meet, with a shot to eclipse Jack Van Berg's record of 91 wins during a Fair Grounds season. Through Sunday, Asmussen had 74 winners, and Bridgmohan had been on 61 of them. The two have won at a nearly 31 percent clip, and have raked in $2.08 million in purses, with the heart of the meet coming in Saturday's six stakes.

Asmussen and Bridgmohan are more than a little bit live there. Pyro won the Risen Star Stakes under Bridgmohan in his 2008 debut, going from last to first in the final quarter-mile, a stretch run that confirmed Pyro had grown from age 2 to 3 the right way. His appearance Saturday in the Louisiana Derby is highly anticipated.

What could not have been anticipated a few years ago was where Bridgmohan, 28, would be right now. A regular on the New York circuit, Bridgmohan won an Eclipse Award as the leading apprentice in 1998, but his career got stuck in neutral on the tough New York circuit.

"I maybe took some things for granted," Bridgmohan said in a phone interview this week. "When you do so well with the bug, you expect the same people to keep using you, but it doesn't work like that."

Bridghmohan was born into comfortable circumstances in a town not far from Kingston, Jamaica, where he lived until the age of 13, when his family moved to Florida. (His brother, Jermaine, also is a successful jockey.) Bridgmohan's interest in riding was fueled by his father, a regular track patron, and in high school Bridgmohan was working at the training track behind Calder Race Course, walking hots, mucking stalls, and eventually learning to ride. His father insisted he get a diploma before becoming a jock; once that was taken care of, Bridgmohan was off to the races.

He rode in a handful of races in 1997, and really got going in 1998, when he landed the Eclipse. But Bridgmohan was not the first jock to get bumped down several pegs making the transition from hot bug boy to another journeyman in New York. Bridgmohan carved out a good living riding at Aqueduct in the winter, but things got tougher come spring.

"When [Jerry] Bailey, Johnny [Velazquez], Edgar Prado, and those guys came back after Gulfstream, I mean, they take a lot of business," Bridgmohan said.

In 2005, Bridgmohan made a career-changing move, leaving New York for a summer at Arlington Park. With help from the agent Dennis Cooper (Doc Danner has Bridgmohan's book now), Bridgmohan easily made leading rider, and changed his career trajectory. It was at Arlington that he began riding for Asmussen, a relationship that carried over to the Keeneland meet that autumn. But the Asmussen-Bridgmohan combo was not fully formed until last year.

"I wasn't married to it right away," Asmussen said.

Asmussen, by all accounts, is a phenomenal horseman. His stock come to the track generally looking like a million bucks, and the animals appear unusually well-schooled. The raw materials are required to start, of course, but it takes a certain degree of acumen to get a horse like Visible Truth to run like he did last week. Bridgmohan is the final piece in the puzzle, translating the training and the preparation to results.

"He understands what we're trying to do," said Asmussen. "He understands what to do in certain situations, and he can see the big picture."

Asmussen has relied mainly on a single jockey before, using Donnie Meche almost exclusively several years ago. He wants a rider to be fully committed to his operation, his way of doing things. Asmussen pushes himself relentlessly, wants to win every race, and he expects those working for him to take the same approach. This includes Bridgmohan, who has gotten fully on board the Asmussen train.

"Sometimes he might cuss me out, but you know what, if you pay attention to what he's saying, really listen to him, and you think about it, you realize he's right," Bridgmohan said. "Being around Steve has made me a better rider."

Bridghmohan now seems to have Asmussen's confidence. "You'd better be sure you know what you're doing when you give Shaun instructions," Asmussen said. "He'll do exactly what you say."

That includes Bridgmohan's ride on Pyro in the Risen Star, where Pyro was held up at the back of the field behind a really slow early pace before finishing his final quarter-mile in less than 23 seconds, unheard of in a 3-year-old dirt horse. But when Bridgmohan gets a leg up on Pyro in the paddock Saturday, it will be his first time aboard the colt since the Risen Star winner's circle. Bridgmohan rode Zanjero when he worked in company with Pyro on Feb. 25, but he hasn't breezed Pyro since last summer. That's the way Asmussen wants it, and what Asmussen wants is fine for Bridgmohan.

The father of two young children, Bridgmohan said his family is in the process of moving from Long Island to Louisville. That strongly suggests Bridgmohan is on the Kentucky-Fair Grounds circuit for the long haul, and that his partnership with Asmussen could have legs. But this time, Bridgmohan said he's making no assumptions whatsoever.

"I've seen how good it can be having a strong stable behind you," Bridgmohan said. "I'm just grateful for this opportunity."