01/05/2005 12:00AM

Meche once again Asmussen's go-to guy

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More Moonlight, Donnie Meche up, wins the Letellier Memorial Stakes.

One day into the first year of the rest of his training life, Steve Asmussen was on pace to win 2,775 races in 2005.

Try this twisted logic: Asmussen won one race on Jan. 1, 2004, and 554 more the rest of the year, smashing Jack Van Berg's single-season training record and vaulting into the race for an Eclipse Award. Asmussen rang in this New Year with five winners, four at Fair Grounds alone last Saturday afternoon, tying a track record. At five times the strike rate, 555 becomes 2,775.

Back in the land of reality, there is the impending Eclipse Award for leading trainer. Many have Asmussen running neck and neck with Todd Pletcher.

"It's a weird thing to think about, but I understand it's possible," said Asmussen.

Asmussen claimed he would scale back once he had secured the single-season record, but his nine winners through Jan. 4 top the national standings.

"Things clicked for a few days," Asmussen said. "You're happy until the next one gets beat."

Or until a vicious virus kicks you in the hindquarters. Asmussen was so sick he could only make a brief appearance at the Fair Grounds racetrack Wednesday - and for him, that is saying something. His top assistant, Scott Blasi, was similarly afflicted and stayed home.

The jockey Donnie Meche was there, however, working seven of Asmussen's horses. That is a heavy workload for an established race rider, especially one who in years past had to be, at times, coaxed into getting up in the morning.

"I got on nine or 10 yesterday," Meche said Wednesday morning, actually sounding delighted with the workload.

Donnie has snuck quietly back into the top jockey's slot in the Asmussen barn. It's a good place to be. Meche rode all four of Asmussen's Fair Grounds winners Saturday, including the stakes horse More Moonlight. For the meet he has won 18, placing him fifth in the standings, one victory ahead of his identical twin brother, Lonnie.

Asmussen started only one horse New Year's Day 2004, yet he was much busier than Meche, who was banished to rural Louisiana after being ruled off racetracks for a year by the Louisiana State Racing Commission. At issue was the effort Meche had put forth the night of Jan. 23, 2003, when he tried (or not) to win a trial race at Delta Downs on an Asmussen horse named Cleaning House. Meche made his comeback last summer at Louisiana Downs, then moved to Lone Star. Once the Asmussen stable's top gun, Meche started out far down the pecking order of usable jockeys. Business was sluggish, and so was his body.

"In Dallas I still felt like my timing was way off," said Meche. "I'm still not all the way back. I'm still not getting the horses to relax the way I know I can."

He is working on it. Meche not only has filled his mornings breezing horses at Fair Grounds, he has made two-hour pilgrimages to Evangeline Downs to work Asmussen-trained horses there.

"Oh yeah, I'm okay with all that," Meche said. "That helps me with my weight. If I'd get bored, I'd go to eating."

The agent Fred Aime, who has previously booked mounts for Pat Day and Shane Sellers, is handling Meche's business now, as well as that of Brian Hernandez Jr., who rode first call for Asmussen at the Churchill Downs fall meeting. Hernandez recently lost his apprentice allowance, and Meche has eclipsed him as Asmussen's man at Fair Grounds.

"I'm lucky he stuck with me," said Meche. "I don't know what makes him do it, but he does."

Said Asmussen: "You're never really back until you're winning."

And if you're with Asmussen, the winning is sure to come.