07/21/2003 11:00PM

Will Asmussen slump or soar this year?

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - Though he dominated racing around the country in 2002, winning a North American-best 410 races, trainer Steve Asmussen was humbled by Saratoga last summer.

Asmussen went winless with his first 15 starters here before Private Emblem won the Albany Handicap. The trainer finished the meeting 3 for 24.

"Private Emblem won a stakes here, and he was the only one of that caliber of horse that we had that belonged," said Asmussen, whose 237 wins this year are second only to Scott Lake's total. "Some of the horses that we ran were soundly defeated; it was pretty self-explanatory walking back."

This year, Asmussen appears well-stocked to duplicate the performance he had here in 2001, when he went 7 for 28 and won the Grade 1 Spinaway with Cashier's Dream. On Saturday, Asmussen will be well-represented in the Grade 1 Test Stakes with Lady Tak.

"We had a great year [in 2001] because we were leading Cashier's Dream over there," Asmussen said. "I can compare Lady Tak to Cashier's Dream, and she's the only one I can compare to that filly. It takes a horse like that to win these races."

Lady Tak won her first five career starts, including the Grade 2 Fair Grounds Oaks. After finishing second in the Ashland, she finished sixth as the Kentucky Oaks favorite, beaten eight lengths by Bird Town. In the Grade 1 Acorn, Lady Tak had a troubled trip, and Bird Town beat her by only a head.

Asmussen believes that cutting back to seven furlongs should be ideal for Lady Tak, who has put in two super works over Saratoga's main track.

"I think we all know how significant the Test is as a race, and we're very fortunate to be in good physical condition to participate in a race that, for a long time, we've known physically she belongs in," Asmussen said.

The day after Lady Tak was beaten in the Acorn, Asmussen sent out Posse in the Grade 2 Riva Ridge, where he scored a head victory over Midas Eyes. Posse is being pointed to the Grade 2, $150,000 Amsterdam Stakes on Aug. 2 as a prep for the Grade 1 King's Bishop on Aug. 23. Private Emblem will be pointed to the Aug. 8 West Point Handicap.

Asmussen is also loaded with 2-year-olds, led by Cuvee and Best to be King. Cuvee had a brutal trip when he finished third as the favorite in the Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs. He will be pointed to the Saratoga Special on Aug. 13. Plans for Best to be King, who finished sixth as the favorite in the Grade 3 Tremont, have not been firmed.

Frankel eyes Azeri with Wild Spirit

While most people are looking forward to the day defending Horse of the Year Azeri takes on males, trainer Bobby Frankel is looking forward to the day his handicap filly Wild Spirit meets Azeri. Wild Spirit is 2 for 2 in this country after her dominant victory in Sunday's Delaware Handicap.

"I'd love that," Frankel said Tuesday. "I'd like to have it right up here in the Personal Ensign. It'd be an interesting race. California people don't even know this filly's alive."

Wild Spirit, who defeated Take Charge Lady by six lengths in the Del 'Cap, will make her next start in the Grade 1, $400,000 Personal Ensign Handicap here Aug. 22. After that, she will most likely start in the $750,000 Beldame at Belmont on Oct. 4.

Meanwhile, Azeri is likely to run next in the $300,000 Clement Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar on Aug. 10.

Jerry Bailey, the rider of Wild Spirit, is also looking forward to a Wild Spirit-Azeri meeting, which probably won't take place until the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita on Oct. 25.

"It'd be a pretty darn good race," Bailey said. "Take Charge Lady has a pretty good kick herself, and Wild Spirit made her look like she didn't have much kick at all."

Midas Eyes, Dollar Bill sidelined Midas Eyes, Frankel's multiple-stakes-winning sprinter, will miss the Amsterdam Stakes because of a bruised foot, Frankel said. Also, Dollar Bill, who finished third in the Grade 1 Suburban, will be sidelined indefinitely with an unspecified problem.

Frankel said Midas Eyes came out of his most recent workout with a bruised right front foot, but the trainer hopes to have him ready to run in the Grade 1 King's Bishop on Aug. 23.

"Two days after he worked he was off on it," Frankel said. "Everything else is clear, but the inside quarter is really sore."

Frankel was contemplating starting Dollar Bill in Friday's Bernard Baruch Handicap on turf. Frankel said he has had to stop on the horse for about two months, however, though he wasn't specific about the problem.

Trying to build a better turf course

Though all four turf races scheduled for Wednesday's card were canceled, and no turf racing - save one steeplechase event - was carded for Thursday, racing officials here are attempting to create a better turf course.

The New York Racing Association has retained Dr. Frank Rossi, a professor at Cornell University, as an unpaid consultant. Rossi has served as a consultant to the grounds crew at Yankee Stadium and for the Bethpage Golf Course on Long Island, which holds the U.S. Open. Rossi visited Saratoga last summer and devised a program for track superintendent Jerry Porcelli with the idea of making the turf course more durable.

"We're using different types of fungicides, different fertilizers and herbicides with the intention of trying to grow a denser turf with the idea that a denser turf would be more wear-tolerant," Porcelli said. "Since last fall we've been going along with his program, and the grass looks absolutely brilliant."

According to Porcelli, the grass course will be cut shorter and will not be allowed to grow more than five inches high.

"We used to be six inches and higher, but we're going to try and mow it more, keep it at five, and hopefully when the horses start creating some damage it will respond better and recover quicker," Porcelli said. "Right now the grass is certainly thicker - it's very healthy. The blades themselves look better, thicker. The proof will be in the pudding whether we can get more turf races on it."

Last year, more than 30 races were taken off the turf at Saratoga. On Monday, an inch of rain fell in Saratoga and, combined with three inches that fell last week and a forecast that calls for more rain through Thursday, made the turf unusable for the first two days of the meet.

Funny Cide arrives

Let the hoopla begin.

Funny Cide, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, arrived at Saratoga shortly after 9 a.m. Tuesday, following a four-hour van ride from Belmont Park. He was bedded down in Barn 15 and was expected to make his first appearance on Saratoga's main track early Wednesday morning.

Trainer Barclay Tagg, who was hurried trying to get his other 18 horses settled in, said he was not necessarily looking forward to the media crush that is sure to come now that Funny Cide has returned to the town in which he was born.

"It's going to be a pain in the neck," Tagg said.

"That's what got him all stirred up for the Belmont - he had 50 reporters on him all day, every day for three weeks before the Belmont."

Funny Cide, who finished third in the Belmont, is expected to work at Saratoga on Monday in preparation for the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational on Aug. 3 at Monmouth.

Prado bobblehead: A little off?

Edgar Prado said he is honored to have a bobblehead doll of his likeness given out Thursday. However, Prado said the manufacturers of the doll had to redo it after the first one came off the line.

"I saw the first one and I thought I was some rider from England - it didn't look like me," Prado said. "They told me the second one looks like me; we'll know Thursday."

Prado said his three children aren't really into racing, but they are interested in the bobblehead. "They definitely want to have one," Prado said.

* Cherokee Lite, the filly who was declared a nonstarter in last Saturday's Delaware Oaks after she left the starting gate without jockey Javier Castellano, cut the side of her right front foot and will be out indefinitely, trainer Nick Zito said.

"She just missed getting stitches," Zito said. "If she gets stitches, she's out two months. It could have been worse."