04/12/2002 12:00AM

Private Emblem: A $35,000 bargain

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This weekend, a New York-bred by the name of Private Emblem was set to gain a starting berth to the Kentucky Derby by way of Arkansas.

Private Emblem was among 11 3-year-olds entered in Saturday's Grade 2 Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, his first stab at graded company after wins in the Black Gold Handicap and a division of the Southwest Stakes this year.

Private Emblem, a son of Our Emblem out of the Halo mare Merion Miss, was co-bred by Dr. Doug Koch's Berkshire Stud and Tom Tatham's Oak Cliff Stable. Tatham, who is from Texas, bred 1989 Horse of the Year, Sunday Silence, a son of Halo, and also was the breeder and owner of Skywalker, the 1986 Breeders' Cup Classic winner and earner of more than $2.2 million.

Koch, a veterinarian and a commercial breeder in New York, operates Berkshire Stud in Pine Plains, N.Y. Koch raced Private Emblem's maternal grandmother, Curlew, who he purchased for $22,000 as a 2-year-old in 1987. Curlew, a daughter of Storm Bird, was a stakes-placed turf runner and retired with $107,439 in earnings.

Curlew's first foal was Merion Miss, the dam of Private Emblem. Merion Miss, now 11, was retired after losing five races, but the mare has made up for her lackluster racing career in the breeding shed. Each of Merion Miss's foals who have reached the races, four in total, are winners, including her second foal, Rhum, a stakes-placed earner of $111,934.

Private Emblem, Merion Miss's fourth foal, was sold by Koch and Tatham as a yearling at the 2000 Keeneland September sale for $35,000. James Cassels and Bob Zollars, the colt's current owners, were the buyers.

Private Emblem was one of the horses that trainer Steve Asmussen, whose main base is in the Midwest, bought to Saratoga last year. Taking advantage of the colt's New York-bred status, Asmussen ran his 2-year-old in a restricted maiden races. After finishing second in his first start at Saratoga, Private Emblem annihilated his competition by 7 3/4 lengths on Sept. 23 at Belmont Park. A second-place finish in the restricted Sleepy Hollow Stakes at Belmont followed, and then a third in the Houston Texas Juvenile at Sam Houston.

Koch, who usually sells his colts and keeps his fillies, said he liked Private Emblem as a baby, but didn't expect the colt, a March foal, to show as much as he did as a 2-year-old.

"He was a lovely yearling, but immature," Koch said, noting that he was surprised the colt was such a forward 2-year-old.

Private Emblem's 2002 debut and first start in a turf race came in the Black Gold, which he won by a head at the Fair Grounds on Jan. 4. In his last start, the New York-bred won a division of the two-turn Southwest Stakes in the mud by three-quarters of a length at Oaklawn on March 2.

Private Emblem, a winner of $159,300, hadn't been tested at the Arkansas Derby's 1 1/8-mile distance, but Koch doesn't think the distance was going to be a stumbling block.

"I think the pedigree pundits are worried," said Koch, who planned on attending the Arkansas Derby. "But to me, he's got the Halo blood [on the dam's side] and Our Emblem was out of Personal Ensign, a real stretch-running filly."

Merion Miss's 2-year-old daughter, Taghkanic, from freshman sire Indian Charlie's first crop, was kept by Koch and is in training in France with John Hammond. Koch said he sent the New York-bred Taghkanic to Europe because she has the looks of a turf runner. Koch also has a Stravinsky yearling filly and a Chester House foal, a filly, out of Merion Miss.

This year, Koch bred Merion Miss to Thunder Gulch.

* Another New York-bred by the Maryland-based Our Emblem was in the news this month - Raise an Emblem, who won the first 2-year-old race of the Keeneland meet on opening day, April 5. Bred by Dr. William Wilmot and Dr. Joan Taylor of Stepwise Farm in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Raise an Emblem, who races for Pre K Stable, was a 3 3/4-length winner of the 4 1/2-furlong race. He paid $37.40.

* Among the 249 horses catalogued to Keeneland's 2-year-old in training sale on Tuesday are four New York-breds. Hip No. 64, Market Guru, a Quiet American filly, is the first foal out of the Pleasant Colony mare Stock Picker. Hip No. 100, a Dixieland Band colt, is out of the Alydar mare Wings Point, the dam of two winners. Newsontherun (Hip No. 135), a Cherokee Run filly, is out of Channel Three, a graded stakes winner and a producer of five winners. Hip No. 156, a Smart Strike filly, is out of Dior's Angel, a stakes-placed daughter of Fight Over.