11/25/2003 1:00AM

A Van Berg in the Clark


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The Van Berg legacy carries quite a bit of weight at Churchill Downs. Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg saddled Alysheba to win the 1987 Kentucky Derby and 1988 Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill, and his 335 career wins are fourth-highest in Churchill Downs history.

Tom Van Berg, one of Jack's five grown children, was still a teenager when Alysheba raced to his momentous wins, and they remain among the highlights of his 34-plus years. But the younger Van Berg would like to carve his own niche in Churchill history some day - and that might occur as soon as Friday, when he saddles Sonic West in the track's fall showcase, the $500,000 Clark Handicap.

Sonic West, one of 14 horses that Churchill officials are expecting for the Grade 2 Clark, has won four of his last five starts, albeit all against decidedly lesser company than he will face Friday.

"We want to find out what we've got for next year, whether we'll be looking for $75,000 stakes or Grade 2 and Grade 3 races," said Van Berg. "This is the big test we've been pointing toward."

Van Berg, an Arizona State University graduate who got his first trainer's license in 1994, has 30 horses split between the Trackside and High Point training centers in and around Louisville. At the height of his career in the 1970's, Jack Van Berg trained hundreds of horses at a time, which largely accounts for his career win total of 6,337 (second-most all-time to Dale Baird), but Tom Van Berg has a different approach.

"My goal is to get down to 20 quality horses, as opposed to having 50 that includes a lot of horses that just can't pay their way," he said.

Sonic West, owned by Stone Spire LLC, is a 4-year-old gelding by West by West. The only loss in his last five starts was a respectable one: he finished fifth, beaten just 3 1/2 lengths, in the Oct. 25 Fayette Stakes at Keeneland, a Grade 3 race in which fellow Clark starters M B Sea and Tenpins finished first and second.

"I thought we could have had a little better trip, so I think we've got a chance Friday," said Van Berg. "I know he has the heart. What we've got to find out is if he has the ability."

Tenpins, an earner of over $1.1 million, is the 119-pound highweight and probable favorite in the 1 1/8-mile Clark. Pat Day will ride the 5-year-old horse in a race for the first time.

Cappuchino was added Tuesday to the list of prospects for the Clark, bringing the expected field to 14.

The Cliff's Edge tops KJC Stakes

If The Cliff's Edge performs Saturday like he did in his last start, there is little doubt the colt will head to Florida as one of the early favorites for the 2004 Kentucky Derby.

The Cliff's Edge won the Nov. 2 Iroquois Stakes by 7 3/4 lengths, and trainer Nick Zito is hopeful the colt is approaching another big effort in Saturday's $200,000 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, which helps close out the fall meet.

"I think the main thing is, he's just a good horse," said trainer Nick Zito. "He's got a lot of talent."

The Cliff's Edge, with Shane Sellers to ride, is expected to be a solid favorite over about seven other 2-year-olds in the Grade 2, 1 1/16-mile KJC Stakes.

Also on Saturday is the KJC's sister race, the $200,000 Golden Rod Stakes for 2-year-old fillies. Churchill officials are expecting at least 11 starters for the 1 1/16-mile race, led by the uncoupled D. Wayne Lukas pair of Be Gentle and Stellar Jayne.

Asmussen: 'We've had a bad meet'

Steve Asmussen refuses to make excuses for why his usually proficient stable had won with just 4 of 60 starters entering the final four-day stretch of the Churchill meet.

"I hate excuses," Asmussen said Tuesday from Fair Grounds, where he has a 44-horse string. "We're not winning, and we need to be winning. You could try and stretch it and say, 'If four or five of our [14] seconds had gotten there, or if some of our better maidens had gotten in, or a lot of different things had gone right for us, well, then we'd be having a fine meet.' But that isn't what happened. The fact is, we've had a bad meet, and we're going to move on from there."

Even though his horses had earned more than $300,000, third highest at the meet, Asmussen said the meet "started off bad and got worse . . . maybe one big difference [from other years] is that our big horses had other engagements and didn't run there. We've also had several horses injured at the meet, and that compounds your frustration. Not only did they run bad, but then you also lose them for the future."

Asmussen, who averages almost three starts a day at Churchill, said he will conduct business as usual through Saturday. "We'll still be running, that won't change," he said. "I didn't throw the condition book away."

Court takes off, heads to Japan

Jockey Jon Court is missing the last four days of the meet to ride Fleetstreet Dancer for trainer Doug O'Neill in the $2.1 million Japan Cup dirt on Saturday at Tokyo Racecourse. Court, accompanied on the trip by his wife, Krystal Lynn, and 5-week-old daughter Aubrey, will be riding in Japan for the first time.

Court, 43, will take a few weeks off after returning. He rode in Florida the last two years, but is contemplating a return to Oaklawn Park, which starts a 12-week meet Jan. 23.