06/26/2007 12:00AM

Gaff back sprinting on the grass


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - What initially shaped up as a decent trainers' race at Churchill Downs this spring has turned into the equivalent of a walkover. Steve Asmussen has rotated winners in and out of Barn 38 so proficiently that he long ago put the issue to rest, and now the only question is whether he will break the record of 43 wins at a spring meet.

Although every trainer at Churchill typically is limited to one full barn, which houses only as many as 36 horses, Asmussen estimated he has used "at least" 70 different horses in amassing one of the most impressive records in Churchill history. Into Thursday's action, and with nine days left at the 52-day meet, Asmussen had won 37 races from 121 starters, for earnings of more than $1.6 million.

When the meet ends July 8, Asmussen will have unseated Dale Romans, the lifelong Louisville resident who has won or shared six of the last seven spring training titles at Churchill. Last spring, Romans sent out 43 winners, breaking the record he had set in 2003. Going into this meet, several other trainers, including Romans, figured to give Asmussen a run for his money, but by exploiting the extraordinary depth in his far-flung stable - most notably his seemingly inexhaustible supply of 2-year-olds - Asmussen is on the threshold of breaking the Romans record at first opportunity.

Asmussen stands a good chance at chipping away at the record Thursday, when one of his two starters on the nine-race card, Gaff, figures as the horse to beat in the $58,500 feature. Ask Asmussen to say something about Gaff, and he is likely to respond with his favorite answer about one of his better horses: "He's fast."

Indeed, Gaff has earned triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures on several occasions, most recently in the Churchill Turf Sprint on the May 4 Kentucky Oaks undercard. Gaff won that five-furlong turf race with a steady rally from just off the pace, and after finishing third behind Fabulous Strike in his lone subsequent race, the June 2 Aristides on the main track, he will be an obvious favorite Thursday when he dips back into the classified allowance ranks and returns to a turf sprint.

Other contenders in the eighth of nine races, which drew a field of eight older horses, include Smoke Smoke Smoke, Buddy Got Even, and Jump for Joyeux. Of those, Buddy Got Even, with Robby Albarado, might prove the greatest danger in the final furlong.