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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


It is time to give Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen his due.

For a majority of racing fans and players, Asmussen is an enigma, a man you hate to love and love to hate, especially after PETA went covert on him and caught Scott Blasi unaware while the assistant trainer made imprudent comments on video.

Made several years ago, it was the kind of cloud that still hangs in the air today. The subject is never discussed in polite company, or on racing television, but remains a favorite of backstretch whisperers.

Whatever view one takes, Asmussen deserves accolades. His horses are always well turned out, they hold their form well within a far-flung operation unseen since earlier days when old ball coach Darrell Wayne Lukas showed the world how it’s done.

Only great horsemen win 9,000 races. High vet bills is not the only path to the winners’ circle.

On some days it seems he’s running horses in Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, New York and a sprinkling of Mid-Atlantic states, all at the same time.

Far-flung only begins to describe an operation that does as well with its claimers as it does with its Horse of the Year champions.

The man he is trying to catch, in what heretofore was the exclusive province of a Joe DiMaggio, a Woody Stephens or the man that stands between him and his goal, Dale Baird, the all-time leader with 9,445 winners whose operations were more provincial and limited in scope.

Last Friday night, Asmussen became the second trainer in Thoroughbred history to saddle 9,000 winners, from over 43,000 starters, doing so with a $7,500 claimer named Troy Ounce at Remington Park in Oklahoma City.

At his current pace, the all-time record may be eclipsed before a trusted Covid vaccine is widely circulated by the end of next year. A member of the Hall of Fame since 2016, Asmussen is on track to saddle 400+ winners for the third straight year, making it 11 times in all.

Asmussen is doing quite well in 2020. While it’s unfortunate that the exceptional Volatile came out of Saratoga’s Grade 1 Vanderbilt with a hairline fraction of the cannon bone and has been retired, he’s rates to have a big 2021 in racing’s glamour division.

Reminiscent of the dominating juvenile campaigns enjoyed by the aforementioned Lukas and acolyte Todd Pletcher, Asmussen’s won with virtually every juvenile he’s saddled this year, Calibrate and Jackie’s Warrior to name just two.

At present, Asmussen has his eyes on the 2020 Triple Crown’s third jewel after Pneumatic, a winner of Monmouth Park’s Pegasus Stakes last month, worked five furlong in 1:00.85 on the Oklahoma training track on Monday in Saratoga.

Yesterday’s move, a blazing drill on that surface, was his fourth workout since the Pegasus. He’ll have another, more of the maintenance variety over the weekend and, if all goes well, Pneumatic ships to Pimlico one week from today.

But until next year’s Triple Crown chase, Asmussen will try to continue to do what he’s done his whole career, saddle winners:

Asmussen, widely quoted, thinks “it would be very significant to be the all-time winningest trainer. Been thinking about that ever since they started keeping track of wins. That’s why you send them out, to win. If it weren’t important, they wouldn’t keep stats.”

Asmussen and Preakness Probabilities

Achieving the loftiest of goals is likely to be easier than his horse being draped in Black-Eyed Susans October 3rd in the 145th Preakness, even if “now horses” have had their share of success in the classic.

As of Monday, the Pimlico press office expects a possible field of nine which likely would swell if Tiz the Law demurs and opts to go straight to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Currently, the lineup includes Authentic, Art Collector, Thousand Words, Liveyourbeastlife, Pneumatic, Mr. Big News, Dr. Post, Happy Saver and Tiz the Law. Our guess is that Thousand Words, Dr. Post and Tiz the Law are more questionable than probable.

In addition to Pneumatic, three of the four most accomplished breezed over the weekend: For Bob Baffert it was good news-bad news. Thousand Words had no energy we could see, going through the motions in a halfhearted 1:02.40, needed prompting on the gallop-out.

By comparison, his stablemate was ultra-impressive, getting five-eighths in 59.20. The Derby winner launched running, scooted through the turn, and cruised down the lane without being asked, galloping out as strongly as horses run, slowing down only as the half-mile pole approached.

The same but different, Art Collector was just as impressive, going the identical distance in 59.40. He just skipped along with strides silky smooth. Very light on his feet, he was never asked seriously, albeit running on the fence, then galloped out strongly as well.

Not knowing the individual’s morning habits if I rated Thousand Words a C, giving him the benefit of a doubt, Authentic and Art Collector rated an A+.

If Tiz the Law were running, I would have expected him to work this past weekend. The barn apparently is thinking deeply but running silently. My guess is that we’ll hear something by week’s end and if he opts out, expect a full gate for the Preakness.

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12 Responses

  1. Another great posting, JP. Gun Runner, Curlin, Untappable, Steve Asmussen has trained the very best in the sport. And at all levels, as you mention above. 9000 wins is amazing and you’re right, you have to give him credit for that accomplishment. Of course he had help, he has more than 200 horse in training, and a good portion of that total are from the claimers like Troy Ounce. When you look at a program for Remington, Retama, Lone Star, Sam Houston, you see his name in a lot of races, along with Danny Pish and Karl Broberg. I will watch Pneumatic in Preakness.

    1. Pneumatic? Who know C? That’s why God created exotics. No question he’s having a scary year, his babies have been amazing.

  2. Good writeup as always. No racing site on the internet can touch the quality of HRI.

    I will be very curious to see how the whip rule discussions go in NY. It promises to be emotional to say the least.

    It’s too bad Joel Rosario can’t just open a riding school to teach everyone else how to get the most out of a horse with minimal use of the stick.

    Isn’t Ramon Dominguez part of a company that is creating a riding crop that works more by sound than sting to get the horse’s attention?

  3. Bits, no question he has to have plenty of help and the right kind of help.

    But he wins with claimers and allowance types, some he even claims for himself because he seems to like the challenge, because he knows where to place them.

    It’s not like he drops everything down to win. He, like Todd, obviously has a great organization…

  4. Thanks for the props, Doc. I’ll remember to use this when I have products to sell–working on that right now. Helpful, adjunct products, VERY affordable for our audience.

    Absolutely right about Joel, start a “heels and hands” school.

    And, yes, Ramon, developed that soft crop about two years ago (?). It doesn’t hurt when it’s best used as a steering and safety tool.

    When/if normal returns and people are allowed into tracks, the Jockey’s Guild needs to give demonstrations to the public. Show fans what it feels like, invite PETA representatives to attend…

  5. John a little personal story for you pertaining to Steve Asmussen –
    A good 10 to 12 years ago I was out at Lone Star Park on a Saturday morning – It was a big day of racing and the simulcast opened at 8:30.
    I got there when the doors opened – got my seat – and went outside to watch the horses train. This is what I do when I get there early.
    There is a small hill with a few bench seats in the grass area outside of the simulcast – so I took a seat and began to watch the horses.
    5 mins. into my sit – a man sits on the bench – it was Asmussen.
    I said good morning as did he – and we just sat there watching the horses – not a word was spoken.
    A good 10 mins. went by and I said ” this is a good day ” – no people, no phone calls, peaceful, just watching horses. He said ” Yes it is ” – and we continued to sit there – just watching horses.
    By now 20 mins. had passed – and he asks me what my name was – I replied and he told me his.
    I said that I knew who he was when he sat down and it was my honor to share the bench with him.
    He replied that he had to go and he said ” Thank You ” – and that he enjoyed the time.
    I said ” Thank You ” – then he left.
    Told my wife when I got home – she had that look like ” yeah right ” – then she asked if I got his autograph.
    I replied – no – that was neither the time nor the place – Just 2 guys watching horses.

    1. Kim, Love your story for all the right reasons. Good for you, making a memory. One of my greatest pleasures in life?

      Backside at Saratoga after the first renovation break. A bacon, egg and cheese in one hand, coffee in the other. Walk 10 feet in any direction and bump into a trainer, owner, bloodstock agent, fan, other media, but visiting the horsemen? Watch and talk horses. Priceless.

      A line I often use is “the best time of day at the racetrack is the morning… before they start letting the blood.”

      1. Always regretted making a disparaging remark about Jeffrey Fell at Saratoga during a race when a man turned and looked at me. It was Len Goodman, his agent. From what I’ve been told, he was an excellent agent, among the best. I also enjoyed Kim Mason “story” at Lone Star. Simulcast opening at 8:30 reminded me of Las Vegas opening around 9:00 AM in winter for the first from Aqueduct. Las Vegas Hilton Sports Book pretty cool back then. It’s the hotel Elvis performed at. Never made it to NHC contest but have a friend who has been to it and came back to NY with nothing. He’s still trying to qualify to go again. Amazing to see how many leader changes there are in this event. You think somebody is uncatchable and then they finish out of the money. Long shots seem to be the key to success.

        1. C, Longshots always key to success in tournament play, luck too much a factor in our view. Have suggested a winner-picking contest with points awards to various price groups; under 5-2 (2 points), 5-2 to 4-1, (3 points), etc., etc.

          This way number of winners matter, have to pick winners consistently, and luck factor vis a vis price somewhat mitigated.

          Lenny Goodman was also agent for Steve Cauthen in his heyday; a hall of famer if there were a category, although I guess Fats Wiscman was my fave, a true racetrack character.

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