10/25/2001 11:00PM

Romans has the competition outnumbered

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Not since the fall of 1999 has there been a leading trainer at a Churchill Downs meet.

Co-leading trainers, yes. But a trainer who could claim an outright title? Not since Bobby Barnett overtook Paul McGee in the final few days to win the fall 1999 crown has anyone gone solo.

Spring 2000 resulted in a tie between D. Wayne Lukas and Dale Romans. Fall 2000 ended in a tie between Elliott Walden and Bernie Flint. Spring 2001? Another tie, this one between Romans and Flint.

Surely this streak represents a statistical anomaly, but there also is some logic to it. Not many tracks can boast such a deep roster of trainers, especially ones so intent on maximizing their stable's output at a particular meet. The result in recent years has been fierce competition for leading trainer, as clearly illustrated by the closeness of trainers' races.

The meet that opens Sunday at Churchill should be no different. Although Romans seems to be the consensus favorite among his colleagues for top honors, no one is conceding a thing. Although trainers such as Lukas, McGee, Carl Nafzger, Bob Holthus, Tom Amoss, Neil Howard, and David Vance perennially do well at Churchill, the following trainers appear to have the best chances at winning - or tying - for the title.

Dale Romans: Comes off a blockbuster Keeneland meet, which skeptics would say hurts his chances at Churchill because many of those winners will have to step up in class at this meet.

"I think a lot of my horses can step right up and win at the next level," said Romans. "I had a meet where everything went right at Keeneland, so to be the leading trainer at Churchill, the same thing will have to happen. Obviously I'd love to see my good fortune carry over."

Romans said he will have about 60 horses to draw upon. "I'd like to average about 2 1/2 starts a day. If we're tops in starts, then that would give us a good chance."

Bernie Flint: Lost a major client when the Klein family of Louisville recently gave their horses to his son Steve Flint, but given the size of Bernie Flint's stable, there always seem to be horses to fill his stalls.

"At this stage of the game, it's hard to say how we'll do, although I'll have a full load," he said. "I don't know if I'll be able to stay with Dale, but we're ready to make a run at him."

Romans joked that splitting up Bernie and Steve Flint "makes me feel like Sprint after the breakup of AT&T."

Dallas Stewart: Former Lukas assistant had a respectable Keeneland meet but said he is ready to make a far greater impact at Churchill.

"I'm going to run a lot of horses," said Stewart. "Up and down the scale, from stakes to claimers. I've got some 2-year-olds I'm really high on. I think we'll have a great meet."

Steve Asmussen: At Keeneland, Asmussen won four races, all with 2-year-olds, but said he expected to do even better at Churchill.

"I think we'll know by Tuesday how our meet's going to go," he said. "A lot depends on if our races 'go,' especially for our babies, but that's pretty much the way it is for everybody. We'll have the full complement of 36 ready to go. I'd love to get 60 starts out of them, but by the time some of your races fall by the wayside, you're down to 40 or 50."

Bobby Barnett: Having cooled off somewhat since his sensational fall of 1999, Barnett believes he is ready to make another run.

"We've got some maidens and some colts, both 2 and 3, that I think we can get some wins out of," he said. "I've got maybe 25 different horses to run. We're set up pretty well."

Elliott Walden: Went through a sub-par meet at Keeneland, which "nobody likes to have happen, but at least that means we could cycle back at the next meet," said Walden.

Romans, he said, "has a lot of numbers to throw at you, and my stable isn't geared that way right now. I'm not overpowered right now, but I do have some horses sitting on big races, especially on the grass."

Bill Mott: With the local string of 30 overseen by longtime assistant Ralph Nicks, Mott usually ships horses in and out from New York. The days after the Breeders' Cup should determine the makeup of the Kentucky stable, said Nicks, although he already is set for the first four stakes.

"We should be very competitive" in the Ack Ack, Pocahontas, Iroquois, and Churchill Downs Distaff, said Nicks. "Beyond that, I don't know yet, although I'm sure we'll have some horses sitting on some pretty nice conditions."

Chuck Simon: Former Allen Jerkens assistant is the main trainer for Ken and Sarah Ramsey, who have won or tied for leading owner at the last three Churchill meets.

"We've got enough bullets, if all our races go," said Simon. "We've got a shot at being right there."

Simon noted that the Ramseys plan to de-emphasize winning owners' titles in the near future by culling their cheaper stock and buying more expensive young horses. "Mr. Ramsey has accomplished what he wanted in terms of being a leading owner," he said. "Now he wants to win the Kentucky Derby."