Steve Asmussen, one of only five trainers to achieve 6,000 career wins and the Eclipse Award winner as outstanding trainer in 2008 and 2009, is back at Santa Anita with a stable of quality prospects for the winter/spring meet that begins Dec. 26.
The trainer of two-time Horse of the Year Curlin in 2007 and 2008 and the brilliant filly Rachel Alexandra in 2009 has a division of 40 horses on hand for the session that concludes on April 22.
“This ain’t rain,” the South Dakota native cracked dismissively when asked about his lack of cover. “Rain is what we get in New Orleans.”
Among the 40 are Rothko and Wine Police, who are nominated to Santa Anita’s traditional opening day feature, the Grade I Malibu Stakes for 3-year-olds at seven furlongs.
Day to day operations at Santa Anita will be handled by Asmussen’s aide since 1996, Scott Blasi, while Asmussen piles up frequent flier mileage keeping tabs on his coast-to-coast operation.
Asmussen’s focus once again will be Triple Crown steppingstones such as the Santa Anita Derby on April 7, although it’s far too early to count any Derby chickens before they hatch. “There’s a lot of sorting out to be done between here and there, you know,” Asmussen said before heading to Louisiana. “We’ve got to keep getting better and you’ve got to be lucky. You’ve got to be fortunate.”
The 46-year-old South Dakota native does not take a cavalier attitude about his elite achievement when he joined Dale Baird, Jack Van Berg, King Leatherbury and Jerry Hollendorfer as the only trainers to record 6,000 victories.
“It’s very special, it really is,” said Asmussen, who became the newest member of the exclusive 6,000 club when Basalt won the first race at Remington Park last Nov. 18, Asmussen’s birthday. “The countdown to 6,000 was fairly significant for me because it doesn’t happen again,” Asmussen said. “As you have time to reflect on it, it becomes more meaningful.
“Maybe 6,000 is just a number, but I’m very proud of everything that’s happened.”
In other Malibu news:
Probable starter Hoorayforhollywood worked five furlongs Wednesday on Santa Anita’s fast main track in :59.40. “It was a nice work. He’s right on schedule,” Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said. Another Malibu candidate, The Factor, worked six furlongs for Baffert on Hollywood Park’s Cushion Track on Monday in 1:12.60 under regular rider Martin Garcia. Malibu nominations close on Thursday. In addition to the $300,000 Malibu, three other stakes will be offered on opening day: the Grade II, $150,000 Sir Beaufort Stakes; the $100,000 California Breeders’ Champion Stakes; and the $100,000 California Breeders’ Champion Stakes for fillies.
Also on Santa Anita’s Grade I stakes roster are the La Brea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at seven furlongs on Dec. 31, the $300,000 Santa Monica Stakes for older fillies and mares at seven furlongs on Jan. 28, the $250,000 Las Virgenes Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at one mile on March 3, the $300,000 Santa Margarita Stakes on March 3 and the $300,000 Santa Anita Oaks for March 31.
“We’ve made several adjustments to our schedule and we feel this lineup is going to be very appealing to our horsemen,” said Santa Anita Vice President of Racing Rick Hammerle. “We moved the La Brea from opening day to Dec. 31 and we added a couple of $200,000 California-bred stakes on March 31, the Echo Eddie for 3-year-olds and the Evening Jewel for 3-year-old fillies.”
SANTA ANITA OFFERS NEW, STATE OF THE ART VIDEO ON INFIELD, PADDOCK BOARDS
Santa Anita has installed state-of-the-art video boards in its infield and paddock areas which will be operational opening day, Dec. 26. The boards will carry live satellite broadcast feeds of all post parades and racing at Santa Anita and will also keep fans up to date on current odds and major stakes races which are broadcast from throughout North America.
“One of our top priorities is to continually work to improve the on-track experience for our fans,” said Santa Anita Vice President of Sales and Marketing Chris Quinn. “The Big Board in the infield is going to be fantastic. It will measure 53’ x 29’ and it’s manufactured by Daktronics. The resolution it projects is the best in the world today and it will enhance everyone’s day at the races.
“One thing people are going to notice right away is that we’re going to be able to give people a much better look at our live races due to the fact the new board won’t be quite as tall, so it won’t obstruct the pan camera’s view of the horses going down the backstretch. We’re also looking forward to sharing HRTV features and live interviews with our on-track fans on a daily basis.
“Our two boards in the paddock will also be replaced and will enable our fans out there to stay on top of everything that’s going on. The investment we’re making is going to be well worth it and it will make a trip to Santa Anita even more unforgettable.
“With the Breeders’ Cup scheduled to return here in 2012, we feel these video upgrades are going to greatly enhance the biggest two-day event in racing. With the technological advances these boards provide, we will offer the best overall in-venue presentation in Breeders’ Cup history,” added Quinn.
Santa Anita was the first race track in the country to install a large video display board in the infield. That installation, which garnered rave reviews and was subsequently duplicated throughout the world, took place in the summer of 1999, less than a year after Frank Stronach’s Magna International purchased the historic facility.
DOMINICAN ROSARIO HOPES TO MEET SUPERSTAR COUNTRYMAN PUJOLS
One of the biggest sports stories of the year broke last Thursday when the Los Angeles Angels signed baseball megastar Albert Pujols to a $254 million contract over 10 years, the second-largest deal in baseball history.
It was peripheral news for Joel Rosario, like Pujols a native of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. In fact, their birthdays are two day’s apart.
“I never met him when I was a boy in my country, but I knew he was a very good player and I always watched baseball,” said Rosario, a star in his own right who turns 27 on Jan. 14. Pujols will be 32 on Jan. 16.
“He signed for $254 million?,” Rosario said incredulously when apprised of the deal, which is more than 10 times the record for one year of a rider’s purse earnings. “Oh my God! I’d like to be his agent and get 10 percent.
“I never met Pujols when I was in my native country, but now that he’s in Southern California, I’d like to meet him some day. That would be good. He’s making more than $25 million a year, but jockeys’ mounts don’t earn that kind of money in a year. I wish they did.”
Rosario, a virtual overnight sensation since he began riding regularly in Southern California four years ago, has nine riding titles on his growing resume. Understandably uneasy as he grappled with English early on, Rosario now handles the language with relative aplomb.
“I’m comfortable doing interviews now,” Rosario said. “I always try to improve my speaking, and it’s taken time. I listen to news in English, I watch TV in English and the people I talk to, I speak in English. That’s how I learned.”
That has helped considerably in his career, which is directed by agent Ron Ebanks. “I’m really happy with how things are going, but I’m always looking to improve and do better,” Rosario said. “My goal is to be No. 1 in the United States.
“Maybe one day I can hang with Albert and he can give me some tips on how to get there. It would be exciting to see him play with the Angels. I would love to see him hit a home run.”
SANTA ANITA THE SCENE STEALER IN HBO’S STAR-STUDDED ‘LUCK’
HBO’s highly anticipated “Luck,” which stars Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz and many others, aired for the first time in a sneak preview unveiling of its pilot last Sunday following the season’s final episode of “Boardwalk Empire,” and received some rave reviews.
Created by world renowned writer/producer David Milch, “Luck” was also directed and produced by the highly acclaimed Michael Mann and was filmed in large-part at Santa Anita. The series features race scenes and characters from The Great Race Place including retired Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens and current rider Chantal Sutherland.
The official “Luck” pilot premier on HBO is Jan. 29 and will be followed by eight episodes which comprise Season One. Milch, a longtime Thoroughbred owner who has also created blockbuster hits “Hill Street Blues,” “NYPD Blue,” and “Deadwood,” described “Luck” as his “love letter” to horse racing.
“Luck” marks the first-ever time the Academy Award-winning Hoffman has starred in a television role and that alone makes its debut compelling viewing.
“We believe ‘Luck’ has tremendous potential for us here at Santa Anita,” said Santa Anita President George Haines.
“This is going to be a look at horse racing that has never been provided. It’s going to at times make people uncomfortable, but in the end, we believe it has the potential to cultivate and create many thousands of new fans for us. It’s no secret that the people at HBO are very excited about this series and we’re going to do everything we can to personalize what folks are watching and help them to relate what they see to real-life horsemen, fans, employees and scene locations here at Santa Anita.
“We’ve begun construction on a ‘Luck Lounge’ on the main floor of the grandstand and we’ve scheduled a grand opening for it on Sunshine Millions Day, Jan. 28, which is the day before the official premier on HBO,” Haines added.
Excerpts from reviews of Sunday’s sneak preview include the following:
Scott Hettrick of Arcadia’s Best: “The pilot begins with Hoffman being released from prison and heading to a suite in the Beverly Hilton Hotel where he tries to regain control of his crime world with assistant Farina. Meanwhile, the gritty, always-on-the-edge of financial disaster lifestyle of a group of gamblers at the track plays out in a way that allows viewers to get an inside view of the life of jockeys, trainers, agents, track officials, and others in track offices, the stables, the paddock area, and even at the morning Clockers’ Corner hangout.
“Along the way we get some amazing shots of horses running at Santa Anita against the gorgeous backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains.”
Maureen Ryan of the Huffington Post: " . . . I’m betting it made you want to go to the racetrack . . . Twice in the course of ‘Luck’s’ first hour, we got heart-stopping glimpses of what it’s like to be inside a horse race . . . a jockey’s view of pounding hooves, training muscles and dangerous maneuvers. How glorious those scenes were . . . "
Ken Tucker of EW.com: “. . . The opening hour was an entrancing mixture of beautiful horses, stumble-bum gamblers, exciting races, and a tightly controlled, yet open, emotional performances by Dustin Hoffman . . . Luck is a luxuriously layered drama that uses built-in, quick-burst excitement of the horse races to pace the more languid, alluring subplots that take place in the stables where the horses live, and the high-end hotel where Hoffman’s Ace takes up residence. It’s a top-to-bottom look at how a race track operates, how the people who work there and come to be there use it as a place to forget the outside world, or to use their winnings to make a mark in the outside world, or use each other for respect, power, and love . . . It was a beautiful hour of television to watch.”
Under the coordination of Santa Anita’s Director of Community Services and Special Events Pete Siberell, the pilot was shot at Santa Anita in March and April of 2010. Following the completion of that show, eight additional episodes were shot at Santa Anita between October, 2010 and June, 2011.
“Scenes of Santa Anita can be observed from all over the grounds,” Siberell said. “You might even catch a fellow employee or regular patron who was cast as an extra.
“We know viewers all over the country will get hooked on the show and we hope many of those will come to Santa Anita for the first time as interested horse racing fans, or just to see where the show was mainly shot.”
The pilot will air “officially” on Jan. 29, with the eight remaining episodes running subsequent Sunday evenings.
WHITE REMEMBERS SPECTACULAR BID’S MALIBU VICTORY
“I will never forget the 1980 Malibu,” recalled Jon White, who currently makes Santa Anita’s morning line and provides paddock commentary for the track’s simulcast network. "The 1980 Malibu was run the first week in January (Jan. 5). In those days, the Palos Verdes, not the Malibu, was the opening-day feature.
“Spectacular Bid hadn’t raced since October. His trainer, Bud Delp, had said before the Malibu that he did not have ‘The Bid’ fully cranked for the race because it was his first start of the year.
“Rosie’s Seville set the pace in the Malibu. Spectacular Bid was last early in the field of five. Nearing the half-mile pole, Spectacular Bid moved up to get alongside Flying Paster. They were about two lengths off the lead at that point. On the far turn, Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster were moving fast toward the lead in unison. (Bill) Shoemaker was riding Spectacular Bid, Don Pierce was on Flying Paster.
“Spectacular Bid and Flying Paster continued to move together until they got close to the eighth pole. And then, just past the eighth pole, Shoemaker tapped The Bid with the whip once right-handed. Spectacular Bid blasted away from Flying Paster to open a three-length lead well before the sixteenth pole. That acceleration was something I will never forget. The Bid burst away from Flying Paster as if Flying Paster was a $10,000 claimer instead of a multiple stakes winner.
“Once Shoemaker realized he was going to win, he just let Spectacular Bid coast home approaching the finish. Even though Spectacular Bid was not all out, his final time of 1:20 flat for seven furlongs broke the track record by three-fifths of a second.
“Spectacular Bid’s win in the Malibu was the beginning of one of the greatest campaigns by a Thoroughbred in American racing history. At Santa Anita that year, he also won the San Fernando, Strub Stakes and Santa Anita Handicap.
“In the Strub, he ran 1 ¼ miles in 1:57 4/5, which is still the fastest time ever recorded for the distance on dirt. He won the Big ’Cap under 130 pounds on a sloppy track. Spectacular Bid’s final 1980 start was a walkover in the Woodward in New York. He never lost in nine starts that year and was voted Horse of the Year.”
FINISH LINES: With Patrick Valenzuela retired, agent Tom Knust has taken the book of Kevin Krigger, while still representing Joe Steiner. Krigger has been riding with success in the Bay Area . . .Trainer Simon Callaghan is pointing Turning Top to the Grade II, $150,000 Robert J. Frankel Stakes on Jan. 1 and Up in Time to the Grade III, $100,000 Monrovia Stakes at about 6 ½ furlongs on turf on Jan. 2. Callaghan, who saddled Dubawi Heights to win the Grade I Yellow Ribbon Stakes last Oct. 1, said the multiple stakes winner was sold for $1.6 million at the Fasig-Tipton sale to interests in Japan where she will be bred . . . M One Rifle, winner of the 2009 Malibu Stakes, is a candidate for the Grade II, $150,000 Palos Verdes Stakes at six furlongs on Jan. 21, trainer Bruce Headley said . . . Jim Cassidy is preparing multiple Grade I winner The Usual Q.T. for a return to the races after some R&R at Aaron and Marie Jones’ Taylor Made complex near Nicholasville, Ky. “We’re looking at about three more works before he’s ready,” the trainer said . . . Condolences to the family and friends of longtime owner Frankie “Eyelashes” Regina, who died Monday at the age of 73. A memorial service will be held this Monday, Dec. 19, at the Palm Mortuary, 7600 South Eastern Ave. in Las Vegas (phone 702-464 8500) . . . Veteran turf journalist Art Wilson of the San Gabriel Valley Tribune reports he is progressing well from bone marrow cancer. “I am heartened by all the support and well-wishes I have received during the past month and hope to be back on the job some time in January,” Wilson said.