08/16/2002 12:00AM

Lake, Asmussen can't get started


SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Trainers Steve Asmussen and Scott Lake this year have dominated racing across the country, combining to win 471 races.

At Saratoga, Asmussen and Lake have combined to go 0 for 43.

Through Friday, Lake is 0 for 29 and Asmussen is 0 for 14 at the Spa. It's another example of how humbling Saratoga can be. Just last year, trainer Nick Zito went for 1 for 65 at the Spa.

"It's very frustrating, to say the least," said Lake, who entered Friday with 228 wins, 15 behind Asmussen.

"We've struggled, we've struggled bad," Asmussen said from Chicago on Friday.

Asmussen's barn may have suffered its worst day yet on Friday when Elegant Performer dwelt at the start of the second race and finished last, and Kris's Sleigh was eased in the fifth. On the walk back to the barn, Kris's Sleigh suffered a heart attack and died.

Lake attributes his misfortune to bad racing luck, bad rides, and a reluctance to drop horses in class knowing they can be claimed for higher prices downstate.

"We've had a lot of bad racing luck," Lake said Friday, before driving to Philadelphia. "Races aren't going at the right distances. Lauren's Hot Dance was making a huge move when the horse in front of her hit a hole and was nearly pulled up. Keats and Yeats got a horrible ride. You name it, it's gone wrong.''

Lake said a lot of trainers come to Saratoga looking to claim and some may drop horses in class in an effort to win a race. Lake said he wouldn't run a horse for $25,000 here when he knows it can run for $35,000 at Belmont.

"I'm not going to come here and give horses away,'' Lake said. "I won't enter as aggressively as I would everywhere else."

Asmussen said a lot of his 2-year-olds have gotten sick.

"We have 11 and we've run two of them," Asmussen said. "You're there for such a short period of time, it's hard to stop on everything, but you're stuck with them there because not only are they not able to perform, but you can't move a sick horse."

Asmussen is hopeful is luck will change on Wednesday when he runs Private Emblem in the Albany Stakes. Asmussen will make a rider change from Donnie Meche to Jerry Bailey.

Asmussen said he has had a falling out with Donnie Meche, his first-call rider.

"How long it'll last I don't know,'' said Asmussen, who declined to elaborate on the problem. "Bailey has to ride. Who am I to say no?''

Asmussen said the losing streak he and Lake are on pale in comparison to the unfortunate losses suffered by trainer Todd Pletcher, who in the last week has had three horses fall to illness.

"Me and Scott get to whining a little, then you see what happens to Pletcher and you learn to shut up," Asmussen said. "It obviously can get a lot worse."

Warners adds to Pletcher's woes

For the third time in a week, a Todd Pletcher-trained horse has taken ill.

Warners, an eight-length allowance winner here last Saturday, was taken to the Hunters Hollow Equine Clinic just off the Saratoga grounds on Thursday, after showing symptoms similar to those of Freedom's Daughter, a stakes-winning 2-year-old filly who died suddenly last Monday from what is believed to be Colitis X.

Pletcher said that as of mid-afternoon on Friday, there was no diagnosis as to what exactly is ailing Warners, owned by Eugene and Laura Melnyk.

"He showed very minor loose stool, which is similar to what [Freedom's Daughter] had," Pletcher said. "Considering how quickly she went, we sent him over to the clinic. He's still at the clinic and they're still not sure exactly what he has. They have ruled out Potomac horse fever and it is considered unrelated to what she had.

"We don't think there's any correlation between the filly and Warners, but obviously we want to be very careful," Pletcher added.

Pletcher said Warners - who was purchased for $1.05 million - would remain at the clinic, operated by Dr. Bill Barnes, for a few more days.

Pletcher said Warners did not have a temperature when he left his barn, but he did spike a fever when he arrived at the clinic. "It's back down now within normal parameters, but he does have diarrhea," Pletcher said.

On Aug. 10, Left Bank showed signs of colic and had to be rushed to an equine clinic in Massachusetts where he underwent emergency surgery. While Left Bank is making progress - he could be released Monday or Tuesday - his racing career is over.

The same day, Freedom's Daughter spiked a fever and eventually perished as a result of Colitis X, a disease that renders a horse's lower intestinal tract dysfunctional and makes it susceptible to bacteria.

In light of these three incidents, Pletcher said he has sent samples of his barn's feed to the equine laboratory at Cornell University to be tested. He also increased the number of times a day he takes the temperature of his horses from two to four.

Azeff attends Saratoga races

Yvonne Azeff, the assistant to trainer John Ward Jr., who was seriously injured in a training accident at Gulfstream in January, was at Saratoga on Friday, visiting Ward's barn in the morning and attending the races in the afternoon.

It was the first time Azeff attended the races outside of Kentucky since her accident, in which a stable pony fell on her. Azeff was in a coma for nearly a month.

Azeff, walking gingerly with the assistance of a cane, talks a little slower, but still has her wit.

"I got in last night. I feel pretty good," Azeff said in the paddock before the sixth race in which the Ward-trained Hero's Tribute finished second. "Last night was the first night I didn't have insomnia and I wasn't restless. I'm not going jogging from barn to barn yet, but that'll be next."

Azeff, who is staying with good friend Pam York, an exercise rider for Shug McGaughey, said she came to Saratoga to take a break from her daily rehabilitation, which runs from 9 a.m.-3 p.m. at the Frazier Rehabilitation Institute in Louisville, Ky.

"I told them I had to bug out and I needed some home therapy," Azeff said. "They don't have anybody that smells like a horse at Frazier."

As part of her therapy, Azeff is scheduled to get aboard a horse on Monday at a farm, in Anchorage, Ky. She hopes to return to Ward's barn in some capacity next month.

"He'll be home the first part of September and that's when we're all supposed to meet,'' Azeff said.

Ward said he expects Azeff to return to his barn on a full-time basis during the winter at Gulfstream.

Hook and Ladder returns Sunday

Hook and Ladder, a multiple graded stakes-winning sprinter, was entered in a classified allowance race Sunday, his first race since finishing last as the even-money favorite in the Gulfstream Park Sprint Championship Handicap in March.

According to trainer John Kimmel, Hook and Ladder came out of the race with an entrapped epiglottis and underwent surgery at the New Jersey Equine Clinic. There were some complications as adhesions developed on the epiglottis from the entrapped tissue. Hook and Ladder was sidelined six weeks. Initially, Hook and Ladder began his training at the training center in Fair Hill, Md., but has really flourished since coming to Saratoga where he has fired three solid workouts.

"He loves training over that Oklahoma track like no track he's ever trained over," Kimmel said. "That track and Payson Park are his two favorite tracks."

Hook and Ladder has won races off of layoffs of 57, 78, and 83 days, so Kimmel is expecting a big effort Sunday, when Hook and Ladder makes his first start in 162 days.

"He seems to run pretty good fresh,'' said Kimmel, who added that he wouldn't rule out running Hook and Ladder back in the Forego Handicap on Sept. 1 should Hook and Ladder run well Sunday.