08/26/2004 11:00PM

No one wins more or travels as often

Steve Asmussen is on a pace to surpass the record 496 victories Jack Van Berg achieved in 1976. With four months remaining, he already has 369.

The pace is relentless. Whether it is the speed with which his many 2-year-olds make their debut, the whirlwind travel schedule he puts himself through every week, or the scores of winners his barn sends out, no one has been able to keep up with Steve Asmussen.

The trainer's far-flung operation - which currently has about 200 runners based at Arlington Park, Churchill Downs, Lone Star Park, Louisiana Downs, Saratoga, and the family's El Primero Training Center in Laredo, Texas - is on pace to smash the record for victories in a single year, 496, set by Jack Van Berg in 1976. Through Thursday, Asmussen had sent out 369 winners. If he continues to win at his current pace, Asmussen will finish the year with 562 victories.

Do the math. To break the record, Asmussen will have had to average nearly 42 winners per month for the entire year, nearly 10 winners per week. He sees every horse at least once a week, relying on a carefully calibrated flight plan and a string of well-regarded assistant trainers who oversee the onsite training during the days Asmussen is at other locales.

Asmussen's stats have been on an upward curve this decade. His stable won 294 races and $8,068,409 in 2001, 407 races and $10,248,260 in 2002, and 452 races and $11,727,910 last year. Asmussen, 38, views breaking the record as affirmation that his stable is getting maximum return on its opportunities.

"I want to do it," Asmussen said during a recent interview at Saratoga. "We had 450 winners last year. When you have 450 winners in a year, with all the missed opportunities, you think there's no way you can't do it from that position. We're consistently trying to fine tune, be more effective, and we're pleased with our efforts. But we can do better."

That never-ending quest for perfection is at the core of what drives Asmussen. He is competitive, thoughtfully intelligent, and demanding. His one character flaw, associates say, is he occasionally loses his temper.

"We're not surprised at the ones we win. We can't believe the races we get beat in," Asmussen said.

"It still feels the same race to race. We plan on winning, and we're disappointed if we don't.

"You can't say you plan on winning 500 races. But we think we can have more success wherever we run. The placement of horses becomes easier with the comparisons we have from year to year. By running at Fair Grounds or Oaklawn, we know how fast a horse you need to win there, and we try to follow suit."

The best horse in the barn is Lady Tak, who is scheduled to run in Sunday's Grade 1 Ballerina Handicap at Saratoga. But Asmussen's barn runs the gamut from the elite, such as stakes-class Bwana Charlie and Lady Tak, to the decidedly cheap. Asmussen believes that by having barns at various tracks, owners benefit by having a greater range of options over where to run their horses.

"We're very much set up to make the most of our opportunities," Asmussen said. "If you have a horse like Posse" - a graded stakes-winning sprinter - "and make him worth something as a stud, you're doing a good job for an owner. But if you lose a horse through a claim, you can still get other opportunities and keep hoping for better ones. The people we train for know we're set up to make the most of the number of starts with their horses."

The evaluation process begins early. Asmussen's young horses receive their initial training from his parents, Keith and Marilyn, at El Primero. Many of the barn's 2-year-olds are ready to roll early in their careers. They are not pricey, million-dollar babies. Most Asmussen runners, including Bwana Charlie and Lady Tak, are moderately priced runners who outrun their pedigrees.

"We've had a lot of success with young horses," Asmussen said. "It's such an advantage the way we're set up. We know where they belong when they come to us.

"Every horse has so many starts in him. We need to evaluate where they belong, and then place them. For us to have success at all levels, it's necessary for us to do well at the top end. You have to win good races. The success at the lower level is a trickle-down effect, as opposed to the other way around."

That realism is what attracts one of Asmussen's biggest clients, Bill Heiligbrodt, who owns Lady Tak.

"Not every one can be Lady Tak," said Heiligbrodt, who owns horses with his wife, Corinne. "I'm realistic as an owner, and that goes together with him. They can't all be champions. As an owner, he takes care of me. He places them right. I wouldn't be doing this if it wasn't for him and his team. Steve knows where to send decent horses. He runs them where they can win. He knows everything about every horse, from the cheapest one to the best. It's a tough game. You've got to take every advantage. He doesn't have the best pedigrees.

"People think he wins a lot of races because he has a lot of horses. But there are other trainers with the same number of horses. Steve just runs them. He gets them to the races and he runs them."

Asmussen currently has 40 horses at Arlington, 36 at Churchill Downs, 30 at Lone Star Park, 44 at Louisiana Downs, and 28 at Saratoga. To see them all every week, he is constantly on the go. Most weeks this summer, he has spent Friday and Saturday at home in Texas, near Lone Star Park. His wife, Julie, and their three sons - Keith James, Darren Scott, and Eric - live in Arlington, Texas. "It's 10 minutes away from the airport and 15 minutes from the track," Asmussen said.

The schedule might change if there is a major race at Saratoga. But, generally, Saturday afternoon Asmussen heads to Louisiana Downs and is there until Sunday night, when he goes to Louisville, Ky. After spending Monday and Tuesday at Churchill Downs, Asmussen will fly up to Chicago and be at Arlington Park for one day before moving on to Saratoga for two mornings of training. Friday afternoon, he goes back to Dallas.

"It's very relaxing for me because I'm doing what I want to do," he said. "When I'm flying I'm on my way to check out what I've got on my mind."

In between visits, Asmussen is in constant contact with his assistants. His top assistant is Scott Blasi, who is with the horses in Saratoga. Asked to describe Blasi, Asmussen simply replied, "Amazing."

"His older brother, Greg, was my first assistant," Asmussen said. "Scott was in school then, but he'd come by and gallop horses when he had breaks."

Darren Fleming is with the horses at Lone Star. He has been with Asmussen at various times since the late 1980's, and full-time for the past six years. Asmussen's other assistants are Mike Burgess, Kristin Crawford, Tony Mathiasen, and Toby Sheets. Burgess is a long-time family friend who competed against Asmussen's father, Keith, when both were jockeys.

"He's got a wonderful staff," Heiligbrodt said. "He's got one of the most organized barns. There's no screaming or hollering. Everyone knows what they've got to do."

"The same rules and guidelines are followed at every barn," Asmussen said.

Asmussen finds parallels between his current operation and the Van Berg stable during its record run in 1976.

"He had assistants like Bill Mott and Ralph Irwin and Frank Brothers. It's the exact same way here," Asmussen said. "These guys are talented in their own right."

Asmussen has been around horses his whole life. His father rode and his mother trained. Though born in South Dakota, Asmussen grew up in Laredo, Texas, from the time he was 2. His parents moved there, concurrent with D. Wayne Lukas, because they were in search of a warm-weather site to train Quarter Horses during the winter. His parents stayed, and subsequently built their training facility.

"I'm worried, on a parenting level, because there's no way my kids could get half the education I did," Asmussen said. "The great thing about a ma and pa organization is that my parents didn't need day care."

Asmussen's older brother, Cash, now 42, was an Eclipse Award-winning apprentice jockey who went on to have a celebrated international career while based in France. Asmussen also started out as a rider, but quickly grew too big. By age 20, he was training.

"I was always extremely interested in racing," Asmussen said. "I learned to read by reading the Racing Form. I always wanted to know. I remember when my brother was riding in New York, we would go over the border to Nuevo Laredo in Mexico so we could watch the simulcasts of his races. I was supposed to be in school. But how could you not want to know more about racing?"

His family was a huge influence on his life. But Asmussen said it is the horses who are the best teachers of all.

"This might be slightly controversial," he began. "I hate when I hear so and so taught me this. What did the horse tell you? Did someone have to think for you? How did you respond to it? Horses teach you so much.

"It's a passion, and then some."

Typical week with Steve
(Number of horses in parentheses)

Spa time: Thursday and Friday in Saratoga (28).

Fight to Dallas: Check Lone Star Park horses (30) on Friday and Saturday.

Louisiana next: Weekend at Louisiana Downs (44).

Brief Kentucky home: Stop at Churchill Downs (36) on Monday, Tuesday.

On to Chicago: Wednesday at Arlington Park (40).

Start over again!