Doctor Decherd led for about a half-mile and then capitulated without resistance, rather like the Sultan of Zanzibar in the Anglo-Zanzibar war of 1896, which lasted all of 38 minutes. But unlike the hapless Sultan, Doctor Decherd was the odds-on favorite.
The last race of a long day, it was a claiming affair that valued the horses at $4,000, and so a race of little significance; yet the loss landed heavily on Doctor Decherd’s trainer. As he stared up at a television monitor and waited to see a replay of the race, he fulminated and mumbled unintelligible imprecations. A crowd of young people that had been gathering for a post-race concert didn’t notice the trainer at all; if they had, they might have imagined smoke escaping from his ears.
“I didn’t get the best out of him,” the trainer said, explaining the frustration that was smoldering into anger, a strange self-reflective anger that wasn’t directed at the horse or the rider or the circumstances, but at himself. As he saw it, he had in some way let the horse down.
For me, that obscure moment provided a window into what’s fundamental about the trainer who’ll soon become horse racing’s all-time leader. The trainer, of course, was Steve Asmussen, and the year 2008. A few weeks before Doctor Decherd’s poor performance at Lone Star Park, Asmussen had won the richest race in the world, the $6 million Dubai World Cup (G1), with Curlin. But on that afternoon in Grand Prairie, Texas, Dubai didn’t matter, nor did an array of titles and records and trophies; what mattered was the opportunity and responsibility represented in a racehorse named Doctor Decherd. And so Asmussen couldn’t hide his frustration, didn’t even try.
That sharply felt responsibility, coupled with the view that every horse, no matter how modestly bred or accomplished, represents an opportunity, has been a major reason for Asmussen’s incomparable success. Through Thursday, he had 9,434 winners, 11 shy of the record set by Dale Baird, who trained horses up until he died in 2007, at age 72, in an automobile accident. Baird’s horses accumulated $35.33 million in earnings; Asmussen’s to this point have earned $360.69 million.
Asmussen’s numbers are so expansive they’re almost too much to take in, sort of like the speed of sound (186,282 mph). But to put them in some perspective, consider this: He has won more races than Bob Baffert, Chad Brown, Brad Cox and Doug O’Neill combined. And within a couple weeks, possibly at Saratoga on the day of the Whitney (G1), where he’ll saddle Silver State, Asmussen will become the winningest trainer in the history of American racing. How high will his numbers soar? At 55, in good health, the Texan could win another — what, 5,000 races? 6,000 races? His record could become one of sport’s untouchables, like Wayne Gretzky’s 2,857 points, or Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, or the Celtics’ eight consecutive NBA titles.
“He’s the greatest,” said owner Bill Heiligbrodt about Asmussen. Heiligbrodt and his wife, Corinne, have witnessed the success firsthand and have played a significant part in the writing of the Asmussen story. Their Lady Tak, who won the 2003 Test (G1) and the 2004 Ballerina (G1), was one of Asmussen’s first Grade 1 winners, and their Mitole, who won the Metropolitan Handicap (G1) and the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1), was the champion sprinter of 2019. “I don’t know of anybody,” Heiligbrodt continued, “who could have accomplished what he has, who could have won such an amazing number of races. He wins races at Saratoga and Churchill Downs, but he still races in Texas and Oklahoma. . . . We’ve won many races, and Steve could describe each one of them; he has that kind of mind. He’s the best at putting a horse right where he should be.”
“He’s just an amazing horseman,” said Corey Johnsen about Asmussen. The former president of Lone Star and Kentucky Downs, Johnsen is the founding partner of CJ Thoroughbreds, an ownership group that has four horses with Asmussen. “He treats every horse with respect, no matter what their value. He enjoys helping each horse reach their potential.”
Since Asmussen trains about 200 horses spread out from Texas, to Kentucky, to New York, it might seem far-fetched to suggest that he’s hands-on. But, well, he is. He spent a dark day at Lone Star, for example, going through each horse’s stall clipping manes. He’s good at it, he explained to Johnsen, and the chore enabled him to get to know each horse a little better.
“He doesn’t mind getting down in the trenches,” said David Fiske, the farm and racing manager for Ron Winchell, about Asmussen. “It would drive most people mad to try do what he does. … He thinks of himself as a horse trainer. And a horse trainer to him isn’t somebody who’s up in the clubhouse hobnobbing with owners; a horse trainer is somebody who actually trains horses.”
The Asmussens and Winchells have enjoyed a long and successful collaboration. It began in the late 1980s, when Verne Winchell, Ron’s father, would send his young horses to Keith and Marilyn Asmussen in Laredo, Texas. There, the horses learned their first lessons and prepared for the races. Many of those horses, such as Tight Spot, Sea Cadet and Olympio, became major stakes winners. Tapit would later go through Laredo and, more recently, Gun Runner, who became the third horse from Asmussen’s barn to be named Horse of the Year (Curlin twice, and Rachel Alexandra). No trainer has won the Golden Eclipse symbolic of the Horse of the Year more than Asmussen. And it all began in Laredo.
Fiske said he can remember going to the Asmussen training center and watching a set of maybe eight youngsters go to the track to gallop. Keith would be on one, Marilyn on another; both were trainers. Their sons, Cash and Steve, would also be on horses. It was a family operation. And still is. Cash, of course, went on to become and Eclipse Award winning jockey and European champion. Steve also began as a jockey, but quickly outgrew those aspirations and replaced them with more practical ones.
“I’ve been very lucky,” Steve Asmussen said, explaining his life’s journey that has taken him to the brink of an extraordinary record. “I was lucky to be a son of Keith and Marilyn Asmussen. I was lucky to have Cash Asmussen as a brother, lucky to grow up in Laredo around so many outstanding horses.”
As Asmussen launches into an accounting of his good luck — wife Julie and sons Keith Jr., Eric and Darren being foremost among the blessings he counts; the many assistants and workers who have, he said, “sacrificed” significantly for the horses in their care — it’s clear that this is somebody who knows what he’s about, where he’s from, how he got here and where he’s going.
About the time he graduated from high school, Asmussen traveled to France to see his brother accept the Golden Whip Award symbolic of being the country’s outstanding jockey. Cash gave his acceptance speech in fluent French. “And I realized at that moment,” Steve said, “that I was a long way from Laredo.”
But no matter where he is or how far he has traveled, Laredo is always with him, along with the values, the lessons and the horsemanship he learned there: “In this sport, if you want to do better, then get better. Effort is rewarded. . . . Everything matters, or nothing matters. . . . If being there at the barn longer or earlier or later helps your chances, do it…. The personal sacrifices being made have everything to do with success. … It’s all about the horses, not about us…. If things aren’t going well, get your butt out of bed and get to work; we’re blessed to have the opportunity…. With horses, the difference between what we know and what we have yet to learn is immense…. Racing is so unbelievably special in that reputation won’t win a race. If we’re fortunate enough to win some more races and have a record, that won’t give me any advantage in the next race; we have to win it, and I love that.”
And so Asmussen approaches the record. But once he has it, what then? What will be his motivation to work a hundred hours a week and log more air miles than most full-time pilots as he travels from racetrack to racetrack to racetrack, as well as to Waco and Austin to visit sons in college, and then to Laredo to check on family and horses, and then back to Arlington, Texas, in time to have dinner with Julie? Silly question.
“What could possibly be better than being around people and horses such as these?” he asked.
Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.