09/24/2003 11:00PM

Cactus Ridge could be untouchable


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Steve Asmussen was at the Ocala Breeders' Sale last March. Asmussen's amazing memory had no trouble bringing forth a colt named Cactus Ridge.

"He was a runner," Asmussen recalled.

Indeed, Cactus Ridge enters Saturday's Grade 3, $150,000 Arlington-Washington Futurity unbeaten and untested in three starts. He will be an odds-on favorite to make it four straight and earn a trip to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

The Futurity shares top billing on Arlington's 10-race closing day card with the $100,000 Arlington-Washington Lassie, in which Everyday Angel should be favored.

Cactus Ridge failed to meet a $100,000 reserve at the 2-year-old sale, and later was purchased privately. Asmussen does not train him. But Asmussen has a horse for the Futurity, Korbyn Gold, Cactus Ridge's main rival in a six-horse field.

There are other rivalries at work, too, like the friendly one between Asmussen and Cactus Ridge's trainer, Bret Calhoun, both Texans. Calhoun is having the best season of his career, thanks in part to an infusion of horses from the owner Robert Beck, many of whom Asmussen had previously trained. Not that Asmussen has suffered: He is the second-leading trainer in the country by wins, and third by earnings, and in Cuvee, he has the nation's top-ranked 2-year-old.

Saturday, Asmussen is the underdog. Korbyn Gold finished 23 lengths behind Cactus Ridge in the Aug. 17 Ellis Park Juvenile, though Korbyn Gold is a far better horse than he showed that day. He bounced back to win the $46,000 Spectacular Bid Stakes here on Sept. 6, his third win in four starts, and with Corey Lanerie riding, Korbyn Gold may take the fight to Cactus Ridge early in the one-mile Futurity.

If not, he may never see him. Cactus Ridge was spectacular this summer. His debut came June 7 in the toughest Arlington maiden race of the meet, where Old Kent Road, a highly regarded Eoin Harty-trained colt, eyeballed Cactus Ridge at the top of the stretch. Cactus Ridge looked back at him and took off, winning by almost two lengths, and no one has gotten close since. Cactus Ridge won the Canterbury Juvenile by 15 lengths and the Ellis Park Juvenile by more than six.

A win by anyone else would qualify as a serious upset. Night Charger and Glittergem are only debut winners, while Texas Deputy and Orphan Brigade haven't shown enough to suggest they can win.