When the moment finally arrived, inevitable in nature but gob smacking nonetheless, it did so in manner that usually only materializes in fantastical scripts and screenplays.
With his first-call rider at helm and carrying the colors of one of his longest running clients, trainer Steve Asmussen watched the colt who had come through his family’s operation in Texas cross the wire 5 ¼ lengths in front during the fifth race at Saratoga Race Course on Aug. 7. As the gray youngster Stellar Tap sauntered his way to his first career triumph, he pulled his Hall of Fame conditioner into sole ownership of a milestone he will likely never relinquish during his lifetime.
One day after equaling the late Dale Baird’s record for most victories by a trainer in North American history, Asmussen made a solo ascent into racing’s annals when Stellar Tap became his 9,446th career winner – breaking one of the most storied marks in Thoroughbred racing.
Of all the scenarios that could have brought about Asmussen’s march into the history books, few could have been more fitting than the circumstances that allowed Stellar Tap to make what will go down as a most memorable career debut Saturday. The 2-year-old son of Tapit is owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds – who have counted Asmussen as their top trainer for decades – in partnership with L and N Racing and, as is the case with many of the proteges who come into his barn, the colt had his foundation put into him at the Asmussen family training center operated by his parents Keith and Marilyn Asmussen in Laredo, Texas.
With Ricardo Santana, Jr. in the irons – as he has been the case for many of Asmussen’s most talented runners – Stellar Tap opened up handily down the lane and allowed a celebration overflowing with family and friends and emotions to commence at the track synonymous with all-timers.
“For this to unfold on Whitney Day at Saratoga with a 2-year-old that came through mom and dad’s program in Laredo and owned by the Winchells, God is great and he continues to bless us,” the 55-year-old Asmussen said in an interview with America’s Day at the Races. “I’ve always said, we’re simply an extension of my mom and dad and I plan on continuing to do things the way they taught us and with the same amount of passion and effort.
“We’re so blessed to be in horse racing and thank all the amazing horses that we’ve had and everything we’ve learned from every single one of them. They made the Asmussen family possible. It’s all made possible through horse racing.”
Between fighting back tears in the Saratoga winner’s circle, Asmussen reflected on the work ethic and horsemanship his parents instilled in him from the time he could form memories. He began helping to walk hots and muck stalls by the age of 5 and when he began training Thoroughbreds and Quarter Horses in New Mexico in 1986, he brought the same attention to detail to every charge in his care.
“If anyone has ever been around my father, he’s the greatest horseman there is,” Asmussen said. “Just blessed to be in the position and to witness that on a daily basis. They demanded work from me – you show up and you take care of what you’re supposed to take care of and with mom, it was don’t do anything you can’t sign your name to. None of it was easy, but it was all passion and as hard as you can possibly do everything all of time. Not some of the time, but all of the time.
“That’s the way it ought to be.”
That’s the way Asmussen has approached every moment of his career since it officially began with a ninth-place finish by Track Ambassador in a $2,100 maiden race at Ruidoso Downs on June 5, 1986.
He saddled his first winner on July 19, 1986 at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico at age 20 with his first Thoroughbred stakes triumph coming in 1987, the Bessemer Stakes with Scout Command at Birmingham Race Course.
His first Grade 1 triumph came in 1999 with Mother Goose Stakes winner Dreams Galore and since that time, Asmussen has established himself as a horseman who can dwarf his rivals at any level of the game he engages in.
He has won two Eclipse Awards for Outstanding Trainer, taking the honors in 2008 and 2009, and was inducted into racing’s Hall of Fame in 2016. He counts such champions as two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, fellow Hall of Famer Rachel Alexandra, and 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner among his most illustrious proteges. Asmussen won a record 650 wins in 2009 and on Feb. 7, 2004, he won a North American record 10 races, including three stakes, from 16 starters at five racetracks (Delta Downs, Fair Grounds, Oaklawn Park, Sam Houston Race Park and Sunland Park).
Asmussen is also second in the all-time earnings category with more than $361 million in earnings, trailing only Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher, whose horses have earned over $410 million.
“What an amazing sport this is. I’ve said it before, it’s amazing what a horse can do to make you feel good about yourself,” said Asmussen, who was set to saddle Grade 1 winner Silver State later on in the card in the $1 million Whitney Stakes (G1). “What a blessing. Let’s keep it up. We better not be done wining today. Today’s Whitney day, we need to win.”