Family Affair: Asmussen Up

December 8, 2022

Asmussen and Asmussen Set for Opening Weekend

Jockey Keith Asmussen collected his first win after returning to riding aboard Tonal Impact at Churchill Downs. Steve and Julie Asmussen (center) in the winner’s circle were joined by Keith’s brothers Darren & Erik. (Coady Photography)

Oaklawn Barn Notes by Robert Yates

HOT SPRINGS, Ark.—Team Asmussen is scheduled to have fans seeing double in Friday’s first race at Oaklawn. Not only does Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen own Bourbon On Fire, his son, Keith J. Asmussen, is named to ride the gelding in the maiden-claiming sprint.

It’s the first scheduled Oaklawn mount for Asmussen, 24, who resumed riding this fall after earning a master’s degree in professional accounting earlier this year from the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business. 

“It kind of just went from there,” said Asmussen, who has seven victories from 75 career mounts. “I got out of school; I went straight to the racetrack. It’s like I graduated, and I was at Lone Star the next week.”

Asmussen, of course, hails from one of the most prominent families in American Thoroughbred history. His grandfather, Keith I. Asmussen, helps oversee the famed El Primero Training Center near Laredo, Texas, where many of Steve Asmussen’s greatest runners have been broken. 

Steve Asmussen, inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2016, is the winningest trainer in North American history (9,957 through Wednesday) and has collected a record 12 Oaklawn training titles. He was honored with an Eclipse Award as the country’s outstanding trainer in 2008 and 2009. Keith J. Asmussen’s uncle, Cash Asmussen, won an Eclipse Award in 1979 as the country’s outstanding apprentice jockey before becoming a champion rider in France.

So, when it came to an early career choice, Keith J. Asmussen quickly returned to his roots, rather than an office and a traditional 9 to 5 accounting gig, after graduating last May from Texas.

“I would probably be working for my father on the backside,” Asmussen said, when asked what he would doing if he wasn’t riding. “I’m addicted to it, hopelessly. I’m infatuated with horses.”

Asmussen said he grew up riding before he began galloping horses on the racetrack at 16 and has gotten on many prominent runners for his father during that time, including Grade 1 winner Basin and Private Creed, third in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (G1) Nov. 4 at Keeneland.

Asmussen has been galloping and working horses for his father since late November at Oaklawn in preparation for the 2022-2023 meeting that begins Friday. The jockey also spent much of early 2020 in Hot Springs getting on horses for his father after in-person classes at Texas were canceled because of COVID-19. 

The switch to remote learning allowed Asmussen to get on horses in the morning and become fit enough to eventually ride. He debuted June 15, 2020, at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas, which is minutes from his home. 

Asmussen recorded his first career victory July 26, 2020, at Lone Star aboard the Steve Asmussen-trained Inis Gluaire. It was Keith J. Asmussen’s 19th career mount. Father and son would strike again roughly two weeks later at Lone Star with future Arkansas Derby winner Super Stock, co-owned by Keith I. Asmussen, in the $113,647 Texas Thoroughbred Futurity Stakes for 2-year-olds. It remains the jockey’s biggest career victory to date.

After graduating from Texas, Asmussen began galloping horses at Lone Star and followed his father to Saratoga, then Kentucky, before he resumed riding Oct. 27 at Keeneland. Asmussen has had 14 mounts this year, highlighted by a neck victory aboard Tonal Impact for his father Nov. 23 at Churchill Downs. The jockey’s other six victories came in 2020 (five at Lone Star and one at Remington Park in Oklahoma City).

“I don’t think I really wanted to go back to school after the first time I started riding,” Asmussen said. “My parents kind of set me down and it’s like, ‘Finish it out,’ because I was close to going off the deep end and just not wanting to go back. Before I even started riding, I mean, my dad, he knew it was like once you start, you’re not going to want to go back to school. So, he made me promise to finish my education.”

Mother Julie led Keith into the winner’s circle. (Coady Photography)

As far as his continuing equine education, Asmussen credits eight-time Oaklawn riding champion Ricardo Santana Jr. for helping him grow as a rider, adding he’s “probably about 50 times better” than when he started. Santana has been among Steve Asmussen’s go-to riders for several years.

“Lot better hands,” Keith J. Asmussen said. “I feel like I rate a lot better than I did. Honestly, even on top of that, finishing. But it had just come with a lack of repetitions. First time I rode, I don’t think I’d worked a hundred horses out of the gate yet. It’s what, 20 times past that now?”

Steve Asmussen collected 63 victories as a jockey before weight forced him to quit riding and turn to training in the mid-1980s. Keith J. Asmussen, 5-10, has his eyes constantly on the scales, too, already having waived his apprentice weight allowance.

“That’s kind of why the rides have been sporadic,” he said. 

Asmussen is named on five horses, all for Steve Asmussen, over the first three days at Oaklawn. All seven of the jockey’s victories have come for his father. No pressure, the jockey said. 

“I love the intensity of this barn,” Asmussen said. “It’s the expectations. I don’t think there’s any other way to do it. Everything matters.”

Asmussen said he plans to generate additional business by riding for other trainers at Oaklawn, or possibly Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, which opens Jan. 6. In other words, he’s crunching numbers for a living. Just not the way one might expect. 

“I’m a jockey now,” Asmussen said. “Full time.”

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