By Steve Sherack
DEL MAR, CA – The best thing about Steve Asmussen's record-breaking 2021 season? The Hall of Famer may want to wait until the weekend is up to answer that.
In a year that has included passing Dale Baird to become the winningest North American trainer of all time, an emotional GI Arkansas Derby victory for his parents with Super Stock (Dialed In) and five top-level wins at the prestigious Saratoga meeting, including three from the first crop of a former barn superstar, Asmussen heads into the Breeders' Cup World Championships at Del Mar with a loaded, six-horse hand.
“Those are some very nice milestones and things that we will obviously enjoy looking back on, but we need to finish out the year strong,” Asmussen said.
“I feel like we have some excellent chances in the Breeders' Cup and we need to show up and have our horses perform to the best of their ability and finish the year off right.”
Excellent chances, indeed.
It comes full circle for Asmussen as his Breeders' Cup weekend begins with L and N Racing and Winchell Thoroughbreds's unbeaten 'TDN Rising Star' Echo Zulu (Gun Runner) in Friday's GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
The $300,000 KEESEP graduate and half-sister to the Asmussen-trained GI Runhappy H. Allen Jerkens S. winner and young Ashford Stud sire Echo Town (Speightstown) will be heavily favored over five rivals for her two-turn debut off the strength of eye-catching wins in the GI Spinaway S. at Saratoga Sept. 5 and the GI Frizette S. at Belmont Oct. 30.
Asmussen, of course, saddled Echo Zulu's leading freshman sire Gun Runner to a win in the GI Breeders' Cup Classic–the 55-year-old's second trophy in the big one–which was also held at the seaside track four years ago.
Standing at Three Chimneys Farm, the 2017 Horse of the Year and champion older dirt male is also responsible for the Asmussen-trained GI Hopeful S. winner Gunite. Gun Runner will also be represented by longshot Pappacap in the male dirt equivalent on 'Future Stars Friday.'
“It went extremely well the last time the Breeders' Cup was at Del Mar and we're trying to recreate some of the same magic,” Asmussen said. “We don't get to take Gun Runner back, but it is kind of fun that the first time we go back we have one from his first crop that's the favorite in the Juvenile Fillies.”
Of Gun Runner's fast start at stud, he continued, “It's dreaming. Meaning, Gun Runner, as special as he was and what an amazing ride he was–good 2-year-old, strong 3-year-old, great 4-year-old–then, how excited we were to have Gun Runner's progeny and for one to start out this fast… Better than we could've even hoped. Knowing how much better he got with time and for Echo Zulu to come out of the box like this–just absolutely special.”
Four of Asmussen's seven-career Breeders' Cup wins, including a Classic victory with the aforementioned Gun Runner, have come in Southern California. The three others–Tapizar (2012 GI Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile), Untapable (2014 GI Breeders' Cup Distaff) and Mitole (2019 GI Breeders' Cup Sprint)-took place at Santa Anita.
The Asmussen barn has also been well-represented with Santa Anita Breeders' Cup placings from: Dust and Diamonds (second 2012 GI Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint); My Miss Aurelia (second 2012 GI Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic); Unbridled's Note (second 2012 GI Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint); Tapiture (second 2014 GI Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile); Gun Runner (second 2016 GI Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile); Midnight Bisou (second 2019 GI Breeders' Cup Distaff); and Storm Treasure (third 2008 GI Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint).
Like his aforementioned celebrated quartet, Asmussen's 2021 Breeders' Cup troops arrived early in the Golden State to prepare, in fact, weeks ahead of the 38th World Championships. It's certainly worked well in the past, but exactly how important is it to get acclimated early to the West Coast?
“I think you said it, it's worked well in the past,” Asmussen said. “It's worked well for whatever reason. Just get acclimated and eliminate as many variables as we possibly can and go from there.”
Five More Major 'Players' for BC Saturday…
Asmussen will tighten the girth on five Breeders' Cup runners on Saturday's stacked program, led by J. Kirk and Judy Robison's GI Breeders' Cup Sprint headliner Jackie's Warrior (Maclean's Music).
A valiant fourth as the favorite after sitting right on a scorching pace in last year's GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he takes on his elders after a spectacular 110 Beyer Speed Figure performance in the GII Gallant Bob at Parx Sept. 25. He previously posted a heart-stopping neck victory over the GI Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile 4-5 morning-line favorite and 'TDN Rising Star' Life Is Good (Into Mischief) in a GI H. Allen Jerkens Memorial S. for the ages at the Spa Aug. 28.
Where does Jackie's Warrior, just a $95,000 KEESEP buy, rank with some of Asmussen's all-time top sprinters–dare we even mention the brilliant Mitole yet?
“I think that they're all individuals and comparing horses is unjust,” Asmussen fired back. “Because what makes them special is how they perform against competition, not talking about it. We have had the fastest horses in the world and are very proud of that.”
The future Spendthrift Farm stallion's resume also includes top-level wins in the 2020 GI Runhappy Hopeful S. and GI Champagne S.
“I think the most unique thing about Jackie's Warrior is the Gallant Bob was only the second time he had run six furlongs,” Asmussen said. “He's just fast.”
Previous 3-year-old winners of the Breeders' Cup Sprint include: Drefong (2016); Runhappy (2015); Trinniberg (2012); Silver Train (2005); Cajun Beat (2003); Squirtle Squirt (2001); Reraise (1998); Sheikh Albadou (GB) (1991); and Very Subtle (1987).
George Hall's and SportBLX Thoroughbreds Corp.'s GI Breeders' Cup Classic contender Max Player (Honor Code) has taken his game to the next level with a change in tactics, sitting right on the pace en route to breakthrough wins in the GII Suburban S. at Belmont July 3 and GI Jockey Club Gold Cup S. at Saratoga Sept. 4. He rallied from far back to third-place finishes in the 2020 GI Belmont S. and GI Runhappy Travers S. for previous trainer Linda Rice as well as a fifth-place finish in the GI Kentucky Derby in his first start for this stable.
“He was giving himself too much to do in quality races,” Asmussen said. “Spotting them seven, eight, 10 lengths-he put himself in a position that it was hard to show his ability. In the mornings, he was showing plenty and enough that with an opportunity, he could do enough with it. Getting him in the race early has allowed that. He stays well, so using some of him early hasn't cost him late and it's given him a chance.”
Stonestreet homebred Clairiere (Curlin), the first foal out of the talented three-time Grade I winner and 2015 GI Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint rallying fourth as the favorite Cavorting (Bernardini), faces older fillies and mares for the first time in the GI Breeders' Cup Distaff. She headed an exacta for her leading sire and former Asmussen-trained two-time Horse of the Year Curlin in the GI Cotillion S. at Parx Sept. 25. She was also second to the ultra-talented, re-opposing 'TDN Rising Star' Malathaat (Curlin) in the GI Alabama S. Aug. 21.
Asmussen will be double-fisted in the GI Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. Listed as the second choice on the morning line at 7-2, GI Hill 'n' Dale Metropolitan H. winner and $450,000 KEESEP graduate Silver State (Hard Spun) overcame a slow start and looked well on his way after leading in the stretch, but just couldn't close the door and had to settle for a close second in the Parx Dirt Mile S. last out Sept. 25. The Winchell Thoroughbreds and Willis Horton Racing colorbearer, did, notably earn a career-best 104 Beyer in that effort. Silver State retires to Claiborne Farm for 2022.
Bloom Racing Stable's fan favorite and blaze-faced 6-year-old Snapper Sinclair (City Zip) goes turf to dirt in search of his first career graded win in the Dirt Mile following a rallying second in Santa Anita's GII Eddie D. S. Oct. 1.
“It's the goal,” Asmussen concluded of the year-end Championships. “We're obviously very fortunate to have horses of this level. We would expect them to perform well. It is the target.”