12/29/2005 1:00AM

Slim pickin's for New Orleans 'Cap

Patrick Lang/Lang Photography
Brass Hat is one of the few horses committed to next Saturday's New Orleans Handicap.

The biggest race of this meet, the Grade 2, $400,000 New Orleans Handicap, is slated for next Saturday, and there are major questions concerning which horses will wind up in the starting gate.

The New Orleans Handicap, won in recent years by such luminaries as Mineshaft and Saint Liam, drew 18 nominations when the race closed last Saturday, but it took work from Fair Grounds racing officials to get even that many, and it will apparently take more in the next week to put together a race that features more than a handful of runners.

For starters, trainer Todd Pletcher all but took his five nominees to the race out of consideration on Thursday, saying it was unlikely that he would send anything for the race. Among the Pletcher nominees is Magna Graduate, one of the top handicap horses in the country going into 2006, but Magna Graduate, Harlington, West Virginia, Colita, and Navesink River are not expected to show up in Louisiana.

"There's some speculation that it could be a short field, so we wanted to keep our options open, though I'm not really planning on anything at this time," Pletcher said.

The story was much the same from California-based trainer Vladimir Cerin, who said Thursday that Super Frolic, fourth last out in the Breeders' Cup Classic, was unlikely to ship in to Louisiana Downs.

"Nothing's set in stone, but we're probably just going to stay out here and wait for the San Antonio," Cerin said.

Also nominated is Choctaw Nation, whose connections, trainer Jeff Mullins and owner Bob Bone, could not be reached Thursday.

Trainer Neil Howard, based at Oaklawn Park, said last week that Alumni Hall was possible for the race.

One expected starter is Brass Hat, who won the Prairie Bayou Stakes last out at Turfway Park.

Good, not great year for Asmussen

Midway through Thursday afternoon, Steve Asmussen had added two more victories at Louisiana Downs to his massive season total, and with just a couple racing days left in the year, Asmussen had amassed 474 wins during 2005. He leads Scott Lake by more than 60 for leading trainer in the country by wins, and his horses have earned more than $13,223,000 this year.

But anyone who knows Asmussen, knows how driven he is and how high his standards are, should not be surprised to hear him speak of the year in less than superlative terms. And indeed, 2005 cannot compare to Asmussen's record-setting 2004, when he won 555 races, more than any other trainer had in a single season.

"We had a solid year, but about 70 less winners than the year before," Asmussen said Wednesday. "So, absolutely, we felt like we could have done better."

Asmussen points to Summerly's win in the 2005 Kentucky Oaks as a career highlight. But not long after that win, his string at Churchill Downs fell under a quarantine after an outbreak of equine herpes. Asmussen said several of his stakes horses, such as Lady Tak, Warleigh, and Lunarpal, never were the same after missing training early in the summer, and that the quarantine situation had a ripple effect through his entire stable.

"The horses you had slated as the second or third best horse for a spot got moved up," he said, "so that affected all of them."

But perhaps only one trainer in the country, Pletcher, has a bench as deep as Asmussen's to plug holes when the first string starts to stagger. Asmussen will open the 2006 season rolling on five different fronts - New York, Florida, Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas - and the winners figure to keep flooding in after the calendar changes.

More races, bigger purses

Business continues to boom at Fair Grounds's offtrack betting parlors around New Orleans, so for the second time this meet, purses are going up in Shreveport.

Late Wednesday, Fair Grounds announced that daily programs would be extended to 11 races beginning Jan. 1, and that purses for the six Louisiana Lagniappe races on Jan. 21 each would be boosted by $25,000, to $100,000.

Also, all remaining stakes races had their status changed from "guaranteed" to "added," meaning nomination and entry feels will be tacked on to the guaranteed purse. And finally, all overnight races on so-called owner appreciation days (Jan. 7, 14, 21, and 22) will be increased by 20 percent.