11/15/2004 12:00AM

Sprawling outfit pursues a record

Trainer Steve Asmussen, with 180 horses, may have close to 300 more starters this year than last in his effort to set a one-year record for victories.

CHICAGO - Jack Van Berg napped late on Sunday morning, and when he awakened, before running a horse at Hollywood Park in the afternoon, there was a telephone interview to conduct. Van Berg's John Wayne growl had even more gravel than usual.

"How many behind is he now?" Van Berg wanted to know.

The "he" is Steve Asmussen. And by the end of the day, the answer was down to 12.

It is no longer a question of if but when Asmussen will overtake Van Berg, running him out of the record book under the category of most victories by a trainer in one year. Through Sunday night, Asmussen-trained horses had won 484 races from 1,987 starters (24.4 percent) at tracks across the country. In 1976, Van Berg set the record, 496 wins.

Asmussen is not merely surpassing this longstanding mark - he is pummeling it. If his pace of more than 6.2 starters per day and more than 1.5 wins per day holds, Asmussen will run almost 300 more horses and win about 70 more races by year's end. That would give him about 550 winners this season - which is a passable career for a horse trainer.

"This is kind of a vain thing to want to do for yourself," Asmussen said last week. Yet, he added, "I do feel like it's extremely significant."

Asmussen is not yet 40, but do not expect another season like this one. By 1977, Van Berg was already consolidating, and come January, Asmussen will start doing the same thing. His far-flung operation is not turning mom-and-pop, but he is ready to concentrate on quality more than quantity.

"We might need to get rid of some cheaper horses," Asmussen said.

Asmussen can lose some stock and still remain gigantic. Right now, he has 180 horses in training at racetracks - there are lay-ups and unraced horses at the Asmussen family's El Primero training center outside Laredo, Tex. - about 45 of whom he owns. Asmussen began claiming horses for himself three years ago, and that has allowed him to expand his stable - and increase his chance to accumulate winners - without having to go through outside clients. He has somewhere around 30 owners, and has blanketed the eastern two-thirds of the country with his 1,987 starters this year. At various times in 2004, Asmussen has stabled at Hawthorne, Aqueduct, Churchill, Fair Grounds, Sunland, Belmont, Arlington, Lone Star, Louisiana Downs, Keeneland, Turfway, Gulfstream, and Sam Houston.

At his peak, Van Berg ran the same kind of operation. Few have gone this far, nor would many want to.

"I did like it," Van Berg said. "I wouldn't have done it if I didn't like it."

Just as Van Berg did nearly 30 years ago, Asmussen flies from track to track to check up on his horses, trying to see them all as often as he can. But where Asmussen cannot be, a cadre of trusted assistants oversees his stables, just as they did Van Berg's.

"I had Frankie Brothers and Billy Mott for assistants," Van Berg said. "They knew what they were doing."

Said Asmussen: "The only way I could do this is with the help I have, and the support I have. What a feeling it is for me to be able to talk to one of those guys and know what needs to be done is being done."

Setting this record might actually temper Asmussen's relentless drive. Asmussen's father, Keith, a Quarter Horse jockey while Steve grew up, asked much of his two sons. The elder, Cash, became an internationally celebrated jockey. Steve also rode professionally, but got too heavy before his career went far. He has thrown everything into training, burning to succeed, and his competitiveness has sometimes morphed to anger. Few would argue Asmussen has grown milder in recent years. Fewer still would question his success.

"Three years ago, when we got to 400, you thought about doing this," he said. "When you get to 452" - his 2003 victory total - "you think about getting to 500."

Until this year, one wondered if Scott Lake would get there first. Another of the newest generation of mega-trainers, Lake has won prodigiously the last several years. And he admits he had Van Berg's record on his mind in 2003, when he won 458 races and the national title, but failed to catch Van Berg.

"We made a big run at it," Lake said. "We really tried to get there."

Lake, like Asmussen, has children, and he has decided he no longer wants to spend every life-moment breathing horses. While he has amassed 339 victories in 2004, this season is nothing like the year-end struggle the last couple years, when Lake and Asmussen threw out nets of entries during December, checking results, tallying victories.

"I called him Jan. 2, and I said, 'It's yours,' " Lake recalled. "I don't have another year in me. I don't know if people realize what he's done. It's phenomenal."

Geographically, Asmussen might not be anywhere near the horse who pushes him past Van Berg, but be certain that he will know that horse inside and out. Asmussen accepts no slack in the people that work for him, or from himself. Block by block, he has built and equine empire, from claimers to stakes horses. His world is racing and family.

"I don't know Steve that well," Van Berg said, "but I know if you win this many races, you got to be working hard."

500 or bust

Top trainers by wins for a season:

1976Jack Van Berg496
2004Steve Asmussen484 *
2003Scott Lake454
2001Scott Lake 407
2002Steve Asmussen407
1975 Richard Dutrow Sr.352
1981Dale Baird349
1987D. Wayne Lukas343
2000Scott Lake337
2004Scott Lake334*

* Through Sunday

Top trainers in 2004

Steve Asmussen 1,987484.24$12,342,837
Scott Lake 1,500334.226,653,514
Jerry Hollendorfer1,135271.245,350,214
Cole Norman 859238.283,521,522
Todd Pletcher 858220.2616,461,386

- Through Sunday