07/03/2004 12:00AM

Lunarpal's time is now

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Steve Asmussen and his platoons of horses come at the opposition in waves. One of the many luxuries afforded a trainer with roughly 150 horses at his disposal is some strategic guesswork that occasionally yields sensational results - which clearly has been the case with Lunarpal, the unbeaten colt who goes for his fourth win Monday in the Bashford Manor Stakes at Churchill Downs.

Lunarpal, being of unproven heritage, was an unknown quantity from birth, a fact that led Asmussen and breeder-owner Bill Heiligbrodt to give the colt greater leeway than they might have done with a 2-year-old of richer pedigree.

"This year we've got a group of 2-year-olds that were more geared toward coming later, and we're just now getting ready to bring those horses to the races now," said Asmussen. "That gives us the chance to throw some of the homebreds and statebreds into the mix earlier, horses that might not work out later on."

Lunarpal is by the first-year sire Successful Appeal and is the first foal of his dam, Quiet Eclipse. "Mr. Heiligbrodt has a broodmare band targeted for speed, and he's been very effective with that plan," said Asmussen, who was scheduled to return from Texas for the final two days of the Churchill meet that ends Monday. "It's what he's aimed at, and it's how he's been able to come up with horses like Lunarpal."

So the obvious question about Lunarpal concerns just how long his successful run will continue. Asmussen is a realist who would not dare start talking about something like the Kentucky Derby for a horse such as Lunarpal. Even if Lunarpal wins the Bashford Manor, then continues to hold form through Saratoga's prestigious series of 2-year-old stakes, Asmussen knows the rest of the division will have every opportunity to catch up to a colt who "was just faster than everything else to start out with."

Asmussen has been down this same road the last two years. He won early-season races with Posse in 2002 and Cuvee last year, but then as the distances got longer and the rest of their respective classes began maturing, those colts remained effective as sprinters, but that's about all. A similar fate may or may not await Lunarpal; the first step on that journey comes Monday.

Down to the final race?

Asmussen and the other two trainers in contention for the training title - Dale Romans and Tom Amoss - have staged a highly spirited and entertaining battle as the spring meet has wound down. The drama might even come down to a pivotal final moment, since all three trainers have horses entered in the final race of the meet, the 11th on Monday.

Asmussen's bid for the title took an ironic hit Saturday when his former assistant, John Fahey 3rd, won the second race with Run Sarah Run by a nose over the Asmussen-trained Sunshine Dreamer. Fahey worked for Asmussen for about two years until they parted ways last winter.

Unaffected, Asmussen came right back to win the third race with One More Moondance and the fourth with Mountain General. Both were favored.

* Because of scheduling conflicts involving their charter flight to Iowa, several Churchill jockeys had to be taken off their mounts late in the Saturday card. Pat Day, Robby Albarado, Craig Perret, and Mark Guidry all had to make a 6:30 p.m. Eastern flight out of Louisville International Airport to ride later that night at Prairie Meadows.

* In most years, Churchill closes its spring meet on the Sunday closest to the Fourth of July, but with an 11-race card here Monday, this year is an exception.

"The only reason we're running Monday is because of the official government holiday and so many people are off work," said Jim Gates, Churchill's acting general manager. "We'll still close on a Sunday in future years."