By MB Kalinich
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen notched his 9,000th career win Friday night at Remington Park with claimer Troy Ounce. He trails all-time leader Dale Baird by 445 wins for the all-time leading trainer title.
A two-time winner of the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer, Asmussen was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2016. His trainees have won such top races as the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Preakness Stakes, Belmont Stakes, Breeders’ Cup Distaff, Kentucky Oaks and Dubai World Cup.
Asmussen won his first race as a trainer in 1986 at Ruidoso Downs. His first stakes win came in 1987 with Scout Command in the Bessemer Stakes at Birmingham Race Course. Valid Expectations would give Asmussen his first graded stakes in 1996 taking the Derby Trial at Churchill Downs. In 1999, Dreams Gallore would give the trainer his first Grade I win in the Mother Goose at Saratoga.
Asmussen trained for Stonestreet Stables, the nom de course of the late Jess Jackson, wine entrepreneur and owner/ breeder. Jackson campaigned Curlin and Rachel Alexandra. Also in the Asmussen barn were champions Untapable and Gun Runner for Winchell Thoroughbreds.
Almost achieving a life-time Triple Crown, Asmussen has won two of the classics coming close in the Kentucky Derby with a second place.
Stonestreet’s formidable Curlin won the 2007 Preakness defeating the Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense after placing second in the Derby. The colt would bounce back to place second in the Belmont to Rags to Riches.
Curlin went on to take the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He was named 2007 American Horse of the Year.
Curlin’s record would elevate further with more Grade and Group 1 wins in 2008, including the Dubai World Cup, Stephen Foster Handicap and Woodward Stakes. For his accomplishments, he was again named American Horse of the Year in 2008.
A milestone came in 2009 when Stonestreet made a fortuitous purchase. After acquiring Kentucky Oaks winner, Rachel Alexandra, she was transferred to the Asmussen barn. Rachel Alexandra, piloted by jockey Calvin Borel, became the first filly in 85 years to win the Preakness Stakes.
The Hall of Fame filly would beat colts again in the Haskell Invitational and win over older males in the Woodward Stakes en route to American Horse of the Year honors for 2009.
Seven years later Asmussen would bookend his Triple Crown wins with the Tapit colt Creator winning the 2016 Belmont Stakes. Asmussen’s skill for handling Tapit offspring had caught the eye of owners WinStar Farm. Among those successes were Untapable in the Kentucky Oaks, Breeders’ Cup Distaff) and Tapizar in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
Asmussen was the leading North American trainer in 2002 by number of wins with 407 wins, a title he has since repeated eight times. In 2004, he set a single-season record for wins by a trainer with 555, surpassing the previous standard of 496 held since 1976 by Jack Van Berg. He broke that record in 2008 with 622 wins, then broke it again in 2009 with 650.
In 2008, Asmussen received the Eclipse Award as Outstanding Trainer. Not only did he set the single-season for number of wins, he was also the leading trainer in North America by earnings. His horses won 81 black-type races, including 19 graded stakes races.
Asmussen received his second Eclipse Award in 2009 after again leading the earnings list and setting a record for number of wins. “It’s just been very rewarding to have such an amazing run,” he said. “It doesn’t feel like proving anything — it’s just fun to win.”
On March 28, 2013, Asmussen became the second-winningest trainer in North American history with his 6,418th career win behind only Dale Baird, who had 9,445 career wins. Asmussen gave credit to his assistant trainers Scott Blasi, Darren Fleming and Toby Sheets, who allow him to maintain divisions in Arkansas, Louisiana, New York, and Texas.
Asmussen’s nomination into the American Racing Hall of Fame was removed from the agenda in 2014 because of allegations by PETA. Following the conclusion of two state investigations finding the allegations unfounded, Asmussen was restored to eligibility for Hall of Fame consideration in 2016, and was inducted into the Hall of Fame that year along with the his champion filly Rachel Alexandra.
Asmussen would go on to train top 2016 three-year-old colt Gun Runner, winning the Risen Star G2, Louisiana Derby G2, Matt Winn G3 and Clark Handicap. 2017 would bring wins in the Breeders’ Cup Classic G1, Stephen Foster G2, Whitney G1 and Woodward G1. Gun Runner would be named 2017 American Horse of the Year and American Champion Older Dirt Male Horse.
In 2018, Gun Runner won the prestigious Pegasus World Cup G1 at Gulfstream Park.
On May 5, 2018, Asmussen earned his 8,000th win with Lookin At Lee (Lookin at Lucky) at Churchill Downs. Lookin At Lee had finished second in the Kentucky Derby one year before.
A native of Gettysburg, South Dakota, Asmussen’s family moved to Laredo, Texas when he was very young. They operate El Primero Training Center and the Asmussen Horse Center, a breeding and sales operation, both in Laredo. Asmussen’s father, Keith, is a retired jockey and his mother Marilyn is a trainer who became the first woman to win a major quarter horse race with Vespero in the 1978 Kansas Futurity.
Steve Asmussen’s older brother, Cash Asmussen, currently a trainer himself, is a retired Eclipse Award-winning jockey with championships in Europe as well.
A very close-knit family, when Asmussen’s grandmother, Helen M. Asmussen, died at the age of eighty-three, on Mother’s Day, 2007, he chose to attend her funeral instead of going to the post position draw for the Preakness. He would win that year with Curlin, a race he would dedicate to his grandmother, who had followed every race that her grandsons entered.
Asmussen, himself, began riding as a jockey at age sixteen, competing for two years at racetracks in New Mexico, California, and New York until his height and weight ended his riding career. “No one would believe me if I didn’t have the pictures to prove it,” he said later, having grown to over six feet. “My parents were 5’5″ and 5’2″. I don’t know what happened.”
Photo: A champagne-soaked jubilant Steve Asmussen raises the Belmont trophy after Creator wins the 2016 Belmont Stakes. Credit: Adam Coglianese/NYRA