11/26/2002 12:00AM

A tale of two trainers - and one rivalry

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NEW ORLEANS - An hour past the end of training Saturday, one of Steve Asmussen's top assistants stood in a stall with a low-level claiming filly, trimming her coat with a pair of electric clippers.

Across the backstretch, the sound of clippers also whirred in trainer Tom Amoss's shed row, but they were being operated by someone from Warren's Clipping Service.

Maybe there's something in the difference that says a lot about how these two stables work. "Or maybe we're just cheap," Asmussen said Monday morning.

That was the time for jokes. When the Fair Grounds meet begins Thursday, the battle starts.

The Asmussen-Amoss rivalry is heated, though neither likes to admit it publicly. But both are fierce competitors who hate to lose. "I talk to Steve, but we keep it at a distance," Amoss said.

Amoss won or tied for eight training titles here between 1990 and 2000, but two seasons ago Asmussen tied him and last year beat Amoss, 68 wins to 65. Both totals were the highest here for a trainer in 16 years.

Asmussen got the title, but Amoss got his wins with 183 starters, 141 fewer than Asmussen, who, amazingly, saddled 324 horses.

"I wouldn't trade my meet last year with his meet," Amoss said. "Do I feel like David against Goliath sometimes? Yes. But it's also true that I used to be the guy with the most horses at Fair Grounds."

"Last year, it was important for me not to lose," Asmussen acknowledged. "I got tired of hearing from people, 'Why'd you let him catch up the year before?'"

Fueling the competition is a divergence in style and history. Asmussen grew up in Texas with Quarter Horses ridden by his father and trained by his mother. He was a successful Thoroughbred apprentice rider before outgrowing the profession, and moved quickly into a training career. During training hours, Asmussen rides a pony to the track with most sets of horses, and later in the morning, between cell phone calls, he pulls manes and clips coats, jobs that often are the province of grooms. His barn sometimes has a ragtag feel, very Western, but without fail his horses come to race looking immaculate.

Amoss, a New Orleans native, spends his mornings in his barn and near the clockers' stand, watching his horses train from trackside. He exudes a sharp intelligence that surely sped along his learning curve - and clearly he has learned his trade. Few trainers anywhere have developed a sharper knack for entering horses in the right spots and manipulating claiming stock.

"Steve and I come from completely different backgrounds," Amoss said. "He comes from racing, and I don't. But it's 2002, and I've been doing this since 1988. I don't feel like I need to prove anything anymore. Believe me, at first I did."

"My father told me a long time ago," Asmussen said, "that everybody's done something to get where they are. Hey, Tom's good at winning."

They both are. Amoss and Asmussen have each had a strong year, though Asmussen's has been more distressful. He had stakes horses Lake Lady and Descapate go down with serious injuries, and the Grade 1 winner Cashier's Dream die from colic. In late October, one of Asmussen's main owners, Bob Beck's Coast to Coast Racing Fund, took 38 horses away from him. Those horses now are mainly with trainer Brett Calhoun.

"Those were some nice horses, and its tough to lose them," Asmussen said.

Still, Asmussen almost won the Louisiana Derby with Easyfromthegitgo, who had a strong 3-year-old stakes campaign, and he won the Arkansas Derby with Private Emblem. At Lone Star he won the spring meet training title with 95 wins, including seven on closing day, July 14. His far-flung, massive stable led the nation in wins for most of the year, though Scott Lake has now passed Asmussen.

Meanwhile, Amoss has had a remarkable year, winning 110 races from only 395 starters through Monday. The 28 percent strike rate is exceptionally high for the number of starters, and Amoss considers this season his finest. He consistently has picked up fresh horses from owners, which has helped him stay hot without wearing out his stock. After a 35 percent Fair Grounds meet last time, Amoss went to Kentucky and tied for leading trainer at the tough Churchill spring-summer meet, and he continued winning at Arlington.

"Right now, when I'm making my training chart there's no hesitation," said Amoss. "I know exactly what I want to do. When it's going bad, it's just the opposite. I'm going to ride the wave till it hits the beach, but I don't have any illusion that I can keep doing this. It cycles and cycles, and everything's going to come around."

Since Amoss tends to start fast at Fair Grounds, it's hard to envision things slowing now. And while Asmussen will have 14 horses at Gulfstream this winter and a larger string at Oaklawn Park, he has a full barn at Fair Grounds and can draw on another string at Evangeline Downs.

"We're going to run some horses here," Asmussen said.

So is Amoss. Let the battle resume.