01/19/2006 1:00AM

Money makes Eclipse go round


ARCADIA, Calif. - What does Steve Asmussen have to do to win an Eclipse Award? Learn to tap dance? Rope tricks? Cure the common cold?

Asmussen has been among the finalists for the Eclipse Award in three of the past four years. In 2002, when he won his first national title with 407 winners, he lost the Eclipse Award to earnings champ Bobby Frankel. In 2004, when the Asmussen runners set a record by winning an ungodly 555 races, the Eclipse went to Todd Pletcher, who also led in earnings.

This time around, Asmussen made the final three by topping the win standings again, with 474 winners. Unfortunately, he is up against both Pletcher and Frankel, so when the Eclipse Award envelopes are opened Monday night at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, the only "Steve" announced as a winner is likely to be that four-legged Wonderboy.

Class act that he is, Asmussen will be on hand at the dinner, representing not only his far-flung organization, but also in support of Eclipse finalist Summerly. Still a long way from a Susan Lucci losing streak, Asmussen is clearly poised to take home a statue of his own someday. He even has the solution:

"Make more money."

Sounds simple, and Asmussen is clearly headed in that direction. His 2005 stable earnings of $13,258,959 marked a career best, good enough to challenge Frankel for the second spot in the final standings, although well behind the runaway Pletcher train.

"We just not deserving yet," Asmussen said of an Eclipse Award. "We're really not. Maybe in 2004, with the record total of victories, you could have made some sort of an argument. But I think we're headed in the right direction. At least we feel like it."

A caller is never quite sure where Asmussen will answer the phone. On Thursday morning, he could have been with any of his strings at Aqueduct, Louisiana Downs, Palm Meadows, Oaklawn Park, or Sam Houston. Or he could have been in any number of airports in the South or Midwest, where the skycaps call him by name. On this particular day, however, just before noon, he could be found . . .

"In line getting a hamburger for a first-grader," Asmussen said. "He's a Whataburger man."

That's not surprising. There are only about 10 Whataburgers near the Asmussen homestead in Arlington, Texas, where Steve was paying his family a visit before heading back to Florida, then on to the Eclipse party in L.A.

The burger, by the way, was for Keith James Asmussen, named for his grandfather. "K.J." and his brothers, Darren and Eric, helped Asmussen survive the trauma of turning 40 in 2005, during which he broke through with his first classic victory when Summerly captured the 131st running of the Kentucky Oaks.

Unfortunately, Summerly was one of several top Asmussen runners caught up in a quarantine for equine herpes at Churchill Downs in late May of 2005. She emerged to hit the board in two New York stakes, then went to the sidelines with a splint-bone injury. Summerly, owned by Ron Winchell, is preparing for a possible return.

"There was a lot of unfinished business with her," Asmussen said. "She was a very unlucky filly. She didn't come out of quarantine the same filly she was going in, and really wasn't able to rebound. The effect was immeasurable."

Not that he dwells on it, but if Asmussen is ever going to be honored with an Eclipse he will need to top the earnings list, or else dominate a season's worth of headlines with a marquee runner. Being a champion in terms of winners gets you nothing more than a little ink, and maybe an "attaboy" from the wife and kids.

In the 34-year history of the Eclipse Awards, the top money-winning trainer has been handed the statue 16 times. Wayne Lukas topped both the money and the races-won tables in 1987, and took the Eclipse as well. But only one trainer has parlayed the races-won title into an Eclipse - Jack Van Berg in 1984 - and he had Gate Dancer's win in the Preakness to help the cause.

Asmussen has a bona fide Kentucky Derby candidate this year in Private Vow, winner of both the Futurity at Belmont and the Kentucky Jockey Club for owner Mike McCarty.

"The people we work for are definitely stepping up in terms of the quality of the horses," Asmussen noted. "That's what it's going to take."

The bad news for Asmussen is that Pletcher and Frankel are still in their prime, taking down the big prizes with habitual glee. Neither one of them figures to hit the skids in 2006.

For good news, though, Asmussen can turn to the stable's red-hot start for 2006 that has him breaking on top nationally in terms of both wins and purses. Breeders' Cups and Triple Crown victories shouldn't be too far behind. Now, if the line at Whataburger would only get a move on.

"I'm next," he said.

Maybe he is.