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June 7, 2007

The race for top trainer heads for tight stretch run

By Gary West

Friday night at Lone Star, Bret Calhoun explained how important and meaningful it would be for him to win the leading trainer's title. Not only did he want to win it for himself, in front of family and friends, but for all the owners, most of them Texans, who have remained with him for years through good times and bad.

He grew up here, he said, and went to Grand Prairie High School. Back in 1997, when Lone Star opened for racing, he had a four-horse stable that was just as modest as the number would suggest. And when the season concluded, the Calhoun quartet had collected nothing, no victories and not a single dollar in earnings.

He has traveled far since then. Entering Friday's races, Calhoun, 43, sat atop the Lone Star trainers' standings with 43 victories. And just as he was explaining how significant the title would be, but that he didn't expect to get it, Red Rock Creek won the fifth race, giving trainer Steve Asmussen his second victory of the evening and 42 for the season.

With his large stable spread out across the country, Asmussen started the Lone Star season slowly. Slowly for him, anyway. He was 14 wins behind Calhoun in mid June. But Asmussen has made up seven victories in the trainers' standings over the past six race days. And so the race for the title could be one of the highlights for the final weeks of the season.

"I don't think we can hold him off," Calhoun said about Asmussen, sounding as if he glanced up at the leader board to see that Tiger Woods had just birdied a hole to move within a stroke of the lead. "Now that Churchill Downs is closing [Sunday], he's gearing up for a big finish."

Asmussen has virtually taken individual possession of the Lone Star title, winning it eight of the past nine seasons. But in 1997, Asmussen won only 17 races, finishing fifth in the local standings.

But winning the Lone Star title is probably just as important to him this year as it was in 1999, when he won his first. He has topped the national standings, won training titles at Fair Grounds, Oaklawn Park, Churchill Downs and Keeneland; he set an all-time record in 2004 with 555 victories. And, of course, this year he won the Preakness with Curlin, who's a leading candidate for Horse of the Year.

"But this is home," said Asmussen, 41, who grew up in Laredo and lives in Arlington. "So I want to win it [the Lone Star title]. I can't say I've won enough and just be satisfied.... We have the firepower here to win it; now it's just up to the horses to run well."

Moments later, Asmussen sent out Lady Takum to win Friday's eighth, moving the trainer into a tie with Calhoun for first. They'll go at each other for 14 more days of racing, starting with today's Stars of Texas program.

Calhoun said all three colts he has entered in the Texas Stallion Stakes are capable of winning, and he said he thinks Be A Resident, who disliked the muddy track in his past two, and Glitter's Forum, who had a rough trip in her most recent outing, are both likely to improve. Asmussen said he's especially hopeful that his 2-year-olds will run well today and that Datrick will step forward in his second start.

Click on "Calhoun Shines" to see how the day turned out.