CRAWFORD | Asmussen seeks elusive Derby win to go with Hall of Fame year
Steve Asmussen has won it all, and just days ago found out he'll be inducted into the national Horse Racing Hall of Fame, but he's still looking for his first Kentucky Derby win, and has two contenders in this year's race.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- There's not much in his profession that thoroughbred trainer Steve Asmussen hasn't won.
He's a five-time U.S. champion trainer by wins. Twice he won the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.
He trained one of the top horses of his generation, two-time horse of the year Curlin, winner of the Preakness Stakes, Breeders' Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup. He was rated the No. 1 horse of the decade in the 2000s in one Sports Illustrated listing, and was named to the National Horse Racing Racing Hall of Fame in 2004.
He also trained one of the most accomplished fillies ever, Rachel Alexandra, who in 2009 won the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/4 lengths, then won the Preakness 15 days later. She dominated 3-year-old males in winning the Haskell, and beat older males with a win in the Woodward.
She will go into racing's hall of fame this year -- and so will Asmussen.
But you know where this is going. Horse racing's answer to, "What do you get for the man who has everything?" is always the same: The Kentucky Derby.
Asmussen has brought 13 horses into the race, with varying degrees of expectation. The best he has managed is a second-place finish with Nehro in 2011. His best chance, with Curlin in 2007, wound up third, though he would run the second-fastest Preakness ever two weeks later.
This year, he has Gun Runner, winner of the Louisiana Derby, and Creator, winner of the Arkansas Derby. Next to Exaggerator's big close in the Santa Anita Derby, Asmussen's pair posted the fastest speed figures of any colts in their last prep races. And they've done nothing to dim enthusiasm since shipping to Churchill Downs for training. Both have raced at the track twice, and Gun Runner broke his maiden at Churchill.
It's a formidable one-two punch that isn't just talented, but complementary. Gun Runner will want to be near the lead, and is capable of being on it. Creator is a late bloomer who generally comes from well off the pace, and weaved through traffic to win from 10 lengths behind midway through the Arkansas Derby.
But when asked, Asmussen wouldn't call it his strongest Derby hand.
"No, Curlin is the best chance I've had at anything, every day," he said. "But I do think we've learned from those experiences and put ourselves in a better position coming into this year's Derby."
Gun Runner has won 4 of 5 career starts, with back to back Grade 2 wins. He'll be coming off a 6-week layoff, but Asmussen likes the long layoff. He won the Louisiana Derby without much difficulty, by 4 1/2 lengths.
"The Louisiana Derby was a nice step in the right direction, and we're expecting another step forward," Asmussen said. "(His year) has gone exactly how we had hoped. Gun Runner, last year, identified himself as a horse who could be a serious 3-year-old. We were hoping Triple Crown-type races, last year, with the brilliance that he showed from Day 1. Pedigree-wise, we feel he's going to get consistently better with time and age."
Creator is going to be a popular choice for the odds he's likely to get. He's one of three entries in the race by the sire Tapit, but didn't break his maiden until his sixth race, running second four times with a fifth in his first five races. He's an intriguing colt, because he only now appears to be "getting it."
"He's always had a lot of talent," Asmussen said. "He's great physically, has tremendous pedigree. It's been in him. He just lacked focus in his races. It was a bit frustrating, running him. You felt like he should have been winning several of the big races you were watching. But he would have mental lapses and just not finish up with the effort you knew he was capable of. . . . He gave us indicators, for the Arkansas Derby pre-race, that he was just focused and coming around at the right time. . . . He showed a maturity and focus that will come in handy for him in the Derby field."
As for Asmussen, he knows the Derby drill. He's accomplished all there is to accomplish in the sport, but you still always get the question from those outside the industry, upon hearing you're a trainer: "Have you won the Kentucky Derby?"
Asmussen comes from a family steeped in the sport. His parents operate a training center in South Texas. His brother, Cash Asmussen, also is a trainer, and was an Eclipse Award winning jockey.
"The Hall of Fame is very special to me because it signifies my family’s accomplishments," he said. "My parents and growing up in a racing family, my parents are still very involved with the barn, a huge part of it, and just to have the opportunity to make your parents that proud, doing something that they’ve dedicated their lives to is a very special thing. I’m extremely grateful to all the help and for a trainer and everything that goes into what we’ve accomplished and the position we’re in is dependent upon so many people and I’m just very grateful for that. Selfishly, just the opportunity to make my parents that proud is something I’ve wanted to be able to do."
Of course, a Kentucky Derby win would do that, too. But Asmussen said he doesn't feel pressure to win the famous race.
"Pressure would be if you weren’t good enough, the horses weren’t fast enough," Asmussen said. "Right now, watching the works that they've put in and how they've come out of it, I’m just extremely proud of the whole team for the physical condition and the mental shape that they’re in going into the Derby. I think that is our responsibility and what we have control over. How fast the competition is or how fast they are actually as individuals is out of our hands, but I think that we are at our best when it matters most. That still may not be enough but that is still where our responsibility is and what has us so excited about this year’s running of the Derby."
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