By Bill Finley
It was back in the late seventies and early eighties, well before Steve Asmussen had his trainer's license, that the foundation was being set for what was to become a historic career. He was studying under his parents, Keith and Marilyn Asmussen, the multi-talented Texas-based team that did a little bit of everything, including breaking dozens of babies that would go on to stardom on the racetrack. Their youngest son, just a teenager then, saw what it took to be successful, the can't-miss combination of hard work, skill, devotion to every horse, opportunity and drive. They became the guiding principles of his own career.
“I feel that my training career is an extension of my parents and their horsemanship and work ethic,” Asmussen said. “It was the perfect storm to be the youngest son of Keith and Marilyn Asmussen. With the way they implemented their tools, they were an inspiration to me. To be able to do it is one thing. To be willing to work so hard for it is another. From an unbelievably young age for both me and my brother Cash, they taught us to respect the horse and the opportunity each one gave you. With them, that never wavered.”
He learned well.
As of July 18, Asmussen, 55, had 9,431 career wins, putting him just 14 behind the all-time leader, Waterford/Mountaineer Park kingpin Dale Baird. The record should fall some time later this month or in early August. He has trained champions, won Eclipse Awards, won Triple Crown and Breeders' Cup races and has been inducted into the Hall of Fame, but there is something incomparable about winning more races than anyone else in history. It takes more than skill or horsemanship. You cannot just be better than your competition, you must be more motivated and have an insatiable thirst for success.
“It's a big deal to me,” Asmussen said of his impending record. “It's huge. It really is.”
He wasn't thinking that way in the beginning. Having left the Asmussen nest in Texas and just 20 at the time, he won his first race in 1986 at Ruidoso Downs. His main goal then was to simply win another race. He went 1-for-15 that year with earnings of $2,324. He did not win another race until the following year.
“I was struggling,” he said.
A year later, he got his first break. Owner Ron Lance was a Birmingham, Alabama, native and a close friend of the Asmussen family and wanted to begin a stable at the newly opened Birmingham Turf Club. Knowing that Keith and Marilyn Asmussen had too much on their plate to set up a division at Birmingham, Lance decided to hire their son. Asmussen won 30 races that year, including a pair of $15,000 stakes at Birmingham and a $25,000 stakes at Charles Town.
“When Birmingham Race Course was opening up, (Lance) wanted horses there and he got dad to send me there with his horses,” Asmussen said. “The Ruidoso Steve Asmussen was someone who was galloping horses on a free-lance basis, had a couple of horses on the side and was enjoying being 20. The real start to this was when Ron Lance talked dad into sending me to Birmingham for the opening of that race meet. It was a completely different responsibility compared to what I had been doing. A sense of commitment had come over me.”
Between 1987 and 1993, not much changed. He never had a year where he won more than 48 races, most of them at second-tier tracks. He showed little sign of being a future Hall of Famer. But he remained confident. He was inspired by Richard Hazelton, a top trainer on the Illinois circuit who, between 1980 and 1985, cranked out 846 winners.
“He was King Richard,” Asmussen said. “I loved his personality and his horsemanship. He was on his way to winning 4,000 races. I just thought 4,000 races, that's 100 races a year for 40 years. I just thought wow. He was revered. Being around him made me want to do what he did. I thought, I can do this too.”
But he had problems breaking through. What he needed was a good horse.
At the 1995 OBS February sale, Keith and Cash Asmussen were hunting for horses for owners Bob and Lee Ackerley, who ran under the name of Ackerley Brothers Farm. It was there that they found Valid Expectations, a $225,000 purchase who was turned over to Steve.
“We won the Sugar Bowl H. on Dec. 31 at the Fair Grounds and it was my first stakes win at the Fair Grounds,” Asmussen recalled. “That was the first year when our barn went over $1 million in earnings. Next year he won the Derby Trial, which was our first graded stakes win ever and our first stakes win at Churchill Downs. He gave me my first stakes win in New York as well [in the 1996 GIII Sport Page H.]. Valid Expectations was the horse that propelled us.”
He had proven that he could win at the top levels, which opened doors. In 1995, he broke the 100-win barrier for the first time, winning 130 races. With momentum now in his favor, he proved unstoppable. In 2000, he won 233 races. In 2001, he won 294, including 31 stakes. For most everyone else, that would have been good enough, but not for Asmussen. His brand now well established, he kept getting bigger and better. In 2004, he set a single season record with 555 winners and topped it in 2008 with 621 winners. In 2013, he won his 6,418th race to pass Jack Van Berg to become the second leading trainer of all time.
Yet, he never forgot his roots and those early days around his parents. While Asmussen's parents were breaking yearlings for such high-profile owners as the Winchell Family, they were also kicking around tracks in Texas and New Mexico with their stable of quarter horses. Today, Steve Asmussen can just as easily be found in the entries for a beaten $10,000 claimer at Remington Park as he can for a Grade I race at Saratoga. There is no other trainer like him when it comes to the diversity of his stable. That he still races at places like Remington, Lone Star, Delta Downs and Sam Houston is a major reason he has been able to compile the numbers he has.
“Why have those races always been important to me?” he asked. “When you think of my mom and dad's stable, you think of them running in south Texas with Quarter horses and at the mixed meet at Ruidoso in the summer. During that time, my parents were still starting young horses off for the Winchells. When I was in junior high, with them, I was around Tight Spot, Silver Ending, Olympio, Sea Cadet. So I was so blessed to be around champions and Grade I-caliber horses while we were making a living with lower-level horses. It goes back to my mom and dad showing me that every horse in front of you is important. To them, every single one of them was important, every horse just as important as the next one.”
To make it work, to have so many horses at so many tracks, Asmussen has to have a deep and talented team working behind him. He is always quick to praise assistants like Scott Blasi, Mitch Dennison, Toby Sheets and Pablo O'Campo. He also credits his family, his wife Julie and his three sons. Not only are they understanding of his hectic schedule, but they stay involved and pitch in any way they can. Asmussen was understandably overjoyed last year when his son, Keith, spent his summer vacation from college riding horses and winning races as an apprentice jockey for his father.
“We have all done this together,” he said of his team.
After passing Baird, Asmussen will have to set his sights on new goals. He admits that he very much wants to win his first GI Kentucky Derby. There's also a trainer in Peru named Juan Suarez, who has more winners than Asmussen has. He wants to pass him. Beyond that, he simply wants to keep winning. There will be no slowing down.
“This has never been better,” he said. “It is so fun to train for the Winchells, the Heiligbrodts, the Ackerleys, because you ran their mothers and now we ran their sires. You had their half-sisters. When they come, in I like to notice the similarities and the differences. That is the fabulous part of it right now. We'll have Gun Runner babies this summer. We've had the Curlin babies. You look at the pedigrees of some of these horses and I broke their third dam when I was in high school working for my dad.
“Then there is my wife and my kids. It consumes all of us and it is so much fun that they are a part of it. It's been really fun to pursue this with my family, just realizing how much joy horse racing has brought to us as a family.”
In his mid-fifties, Asmussen has many good years left. If he keeps up his current pace, and there's no reason to suggest that he won't, he could have as many as 15,000 wins by his 70th birthday. With fewer and fewer races being run each year, he is sure to set records that will never be broken.
In some ways he can't help himself. Winning is in his blood.