02/12/2003 12:00AM

Watch out for triumphant Decatur Way

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SUNLAND PARK, N.M. - Racing Secretary Norm Amundson wrote an overnight handicap for 3-year-olds Sunday designed to serve as a stepping-stone to Sunland Park's marquee race, the $500,000 WinStar Derby on March 31, and trainer Steve Asmussen took full advantage of it.

Asmussen, who already had stakes picked out for two of his runners here last weekend, loaded Mr. Decatur on the van as well.

Mr. Decatur, a $140,000 purchase at Keeneland's September 2001 sale, won his maiden third time out at Churchill on Nov. 7 going 1 1/16 miles, the colt's first try around two turns. Asmussen then sent him to Delta Downs for the Jean Lafitte Futurity at seven furlongs. Mr. Decatur set the pace and battled into the stretch before weakening late, finishing second to Comic Truth. Since Mr. Decatur had already won at a route, Asmussen expected that race would set him up for the $500,000 Delta Jackpot at one mile on Dec. 21, but he was shocked when Mr. Decatur stopped abruptly after racing close to the pace for a half-mile. Comic Truth finished second, less than a length behind the winner, Outta Here.

Asmussen needed an easier spot for Mr. Decatur to redeem himself and found it Sunday. A change of tactics was also in order, with jockey Sal Gonzalez Jr. instructed to stalk the pace instead of set it. The strategy worked, as Stormy Lane prompted the pace of Hasty Gus through fractions of 21.90 and 44.91 seconds and 1:10.64 with Mr. Decatur five lengths back. Nearing the quarter pole Mr. Decatur ranged up outside the tiring leaders with Gonzalez still sitting tight. Mr. Decatur opened up quickly once headed for home and won by more than 10 lengths in 1:36.57.

Asmussen, still wary after the Delta Jackpot debacle, is taking a wait-and-see approach before committing Mr. Decatur to the WinStar.

"We'll run him back at Sunland in the Borderland Derby March 2 and see how he does there," he said. "Naturally, we'd like to run him in the WinStar but he is going to have to prove he belongs."

The Borderland Derby is at a mile for a $100,000-added purse.