06/06/2002 12:00AM

Windward Passage tries turf


LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Several days after the Kentucky Derby, Steve Asmussen told fellow trainer Bob Baffert: "You probably did me a favor. All I would have done was chase."

The reference was to Baffert's widely criticized move of entering, then scratching, Danthebluegrassman from the May 4 Derby, thereby preventing the Asmussen-trained Windward Passage from making the Derby field.

With a Triple Crown in the balance Saturday, it is plainly obvious that lots of water has passed under the bridge since that controversy rose and fell.

Meanwhile, Windward Passage - a late-running colt who, as Asmussen said, almost surely would have done little more than spin his wheels in War Emblem's Derby - has long vanished from the Triple Crown scene, having been diverted to a new stage of his career.

That new beginning comes Saturday when Windward Passage, owned by Team Valor, makes his grass debut in the $250,000 Jefferson Cup at Churchill Downs. A field of eight 3-year-olds was entered in the 1 1/8-mile, Grade 3 event.

Having missed the Derby, Windward Passage went on to make his next start a week later in the Lone Star Derby, in which he finished fourth behind Wiseman's Ferry. Asmussen said that if Windward Passage, by Captain Bodgit, is successful in his acclimation to grass, "it would open up a tremendous amount of financial opportunities for him.

"We've had this in the back of our minds that, at some point, we were going to move him over," he added. "He's out of a Miswaki mare, and he's got some nice low action. I'm anxious to try him on the turf."

Asmussen said a big effort Saturday likely would lead into Arlington Park's prestigious summer series for 3-year-old turf runners.

Probably the strongest challengers to Windward Passage are Mr. Mellon and Orchard Park. The rest of the field is Red Masque, Quest Star, February Storm, Forget the Judge, and Grey Beard.

The Jefferson Cup dates to 1977, when it was a sprint for 2-year-olds. It assumed its current conditions in 1988. Probably the most accomplished winners were Senor Tomas (1992) and King Cugat (2000).

The Jefferson Cup (race 9) will be the live feature on an 11-race card that also will incorporate the Belmont Stakes simulcast (race 10). Horseplayers again will be able to choose between Churchill's pools on the Belmont and the larger, internationally commingled pools emanating from Belmont Park.

The Churchill infield will be open both days this weekend for the annual Brew and Bar-B-Q Festival.

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