When the 142nd Kentucky Derby commences Saturday, Steve Asmussen will be in the enviable position of training two prime contenders in the sport’s greatest race after having just received the sport’s greatest honor.
It’s a far cry from where the 50-year-old South Dakota native, who trains both Gun Runner and Creator, was just two years ago.
March 2014, Asmussen was the subject of a sensationalized nine-minute video culled from seven hours of secret footage shot inside Asmussen’s barn by PETA, which claimed that it showed inhumane and illegal treatment of horses. The controversy sparked exhaustive investigations by racing officials in Kentucky and New York. It caused Asmussen to lose longtime assistant Scott Blasi, whom he fired, and several clients, who fired him. It also caused Asmussen’s name to be removed from that year’s Hall of Fame ballot, on which he was a finalist.
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Over time, however, the storm subsided and Asmussen survived. Four months after the video’s release, he rehired Blasi. Last year, Kentucky cleared Asmussen of wrongdoing. New York fined him $10,000 for improperly administering a synthetic drug but found him innocent of any other violations.
Two weeks ago, the National Museum of Racing announced that Asmussen will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame.
“I think it means a lot to him,” said Elliot Walden, the former trainer who is racing manager for WinStar Farm, which owns Creator. “It would to me.”
“What a great honor to be shared with my family,” Asmussen said this week. “Growing up in a racing family, that’s putting us all in there. And when I say family, we’re talking Scott Blasi (and the rest of his crew). The sacrifices they’ve made, their families have made to get all of this done is very special, and I love to see them honored in that way.”
His credentials fit the honor. Asmussen ranks second in career victories, with more than 7,300. An Eclipse Award winner in 2008 and 2009, he trained two-time horse of the year Curlin as well as Rachel Alexandra, who in 2009 became the first filly since 1924 to win the Preakness.
Asmussen has never won the Kentucky Derby — Nehro’s second-place finish in 2011 was the best of his 13 entries — but if some people thought two years ago that Asmussen’s career might be over, now he might have two of the best horses of his career. Gun Runner, the Kentucky Derby points leader, has won four of five races, including the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby. Creator was talented but unfocused until he bloomed as the winner of the Arkansas Derby.
“This horse came to him very immature,” Walden said of Creator. “He’s done a very nice job of bringing him along, and we’re here today because of it.”
Asmussen is reluctant to talk about what happened two years ago, but he undoubtedly appreciates the faith of his current connections. Gun Runner is owned by Ron and Joan Winchell, clients who stuck with Asmussen through the PETA controversy. Walden, a former trainer, specifically selected Asmussen because of his track record with Tapit’s offspring, often a headstrong group.
The thing I noticed over the last few years, he just kept his head down and kept getting up at 4:30 in the morning and kept his work ethic. It would have been easy to get discouraged and back away from it. That showed a lot about his character.
Elliott Walden, racing manager for WinStar Farm
“I didn’t know Steve that well, but I always respected him working side by side with him as a trainer,” Walden said. “The thing I noticed over the last few years, he just kept his head down and kept getting up at 4:30 in the morning and kept his work ethic. It would have been easy to get discouraged and back away from it. That showed a lot about his character.”
“I’m very grateful for the opportunity with horses like Gun Runner and Creator,” Asmussen said. “We realized how blessed and fortunate we are to be given the opportunity with horses of their physique and pedigree.”
He’s even more grateful for something else. Asmussen recently revealed to the Daily Racing Form that his wife, Julie, who had been diagnosed with throat and neck cancer last September, underwent a PET scan in March showing that she is now cancer-free.
In August, the family will make the trip to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to see Steve inducted into the Hall of Fame. He will be inducted with Zenyatta, jockey Ramon Dominguez and, as fate would have it, Rachel Alexandra.
Only one thing that could top that. On three previous occasions, a Hall of Famer has been inducted in the same year he won the Kentucky Derby: jockey Gary Stevens in 1997 (Silver Charm); trainer D. Wayne Lukas in 1999 (Charismatic) and trainer Neil Drysdale in 2000 (Fusaichi Pegasus). Perhaps Asmussen will be the fourth.
Steve Asmussen’s Kentucky Derby history
Quinton’s Gold Rush
Daddy Nose Best