Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen was at Ellis Park for a few hours Friday to check on his horses stabled with assistant trainer Darren Fleming. Asmussen, who started Sunday with 9,435 victories, took time out to talk about closing in on the late Dale Baird’s North American record of 9,445 wins.
A two-time winner of the Eclipse Award for most outstanding trainer, Asmussen, 55, has won seven Breeders’ Cup World Championships races, including the Classic twice. He’s also won the Preakness Stakes twice and the Belmont Stakes once. His richest champions include Gun Runner, Curlin, Midnight Bisou, Untapable, Mitole and Rachel Alexandra.
Asmussen’s 9,435 victories as of Sunday morning came from 45,854 starts. He’d also recorded 7,649 second-place finishes and 6,523 thirds, meaning his horses hit the board 51.5 percent of the time.
Asmussen led all trainers in 2021 with 306 victories.
Question: You’re very open about being very goal-minded, and you’ve been thinking about this for some years.
Asmussen: “Absolutely. We’re blessed with opportunity. We train for the greatest owners in the country and we have a lot of chances to win races. I’m not surprised by the races we win; I’m kind of surprised by the races we get beat in. I think getting to a significant milestone like this allows you an opportunity to look back and reflect on the ground you have covered.”
You’ve had some wonderful lines about the pursuit to be No. 1. I think one time you said, “Why aspire to be No. 2?”
“Well, if it didn’t matter, why do they keep counting, right? Extremely blessed to grow up in horse racing and be a part of it my whole life. Very fortunate to still have my parents involved in it, and we have collectively enjoyed the pursuit. It will mean a lot when we get there.”
Do you recall when you took over No. 2, and who did you pass?
“(Jerry) Hollendorfer. And I was fortunate enough to meet him when he had a string at Arlington, I think in the early 1990s. ... When we got to No. 2, he has always encouraged me, let me know that I was capable of catching him. Dale Baird — a tremendous feat, no matter where you win races. If you’re in horse racing, you know how hard it is to win a horse race at any level. I think it’s extremely significant to hopefully one day end up being the all-time winningest horse trainer.”
Did you ever meet Dale Baird?
“I met him when I was stabled at Hawthorne in the fall and he’d come in there to buy some horses.”
Did you ever tell him, “I’m coming after you?”
“Oh, gosh no. Back then I was just hoping to win a race. But years later, with opportunity, we’ve accumulated some numbers.”
Do you remember when it occurred to you that “I can be the all-time winningest trainer?” Or was it a gradual realization?
“Oh, by the time I was 12. I don’t know. I was just extremely fortunate in the situation that I grew up in, of knowing and believing and being correct about what great horsemen my parents were. (Having) one older brother, out of south Texas or not, who won the Eclipse and was leading rider in New York and five-time Golden Whip award winner (in France). When you have that kind of example in front of you, what are you scared of?”
Ron Flatter of Horse Racing Nation said that you’re very aware that the Baird record is just for North America, that a trainer in South America owns the overall mark with almost 9,900 wins.
“Juan Suárez Villarroel. He’s like 300 ahead of me, and he’s still winning a couple hundred a year.”
And that’s your next goal?
“Winning the (Kentucky) Derby is my next goal. But the beautiful thing about this is we feel we’re in the middle of it. It’s never been better. The stable is very strong right now. We have some outstanding prospects that should continue to win.”
Does it ever wear you out being so goal-oriented? Or, because you don’t get worn out from being goal-oriented, you are able to be goal-oriented? If you follow…
“This is what I’d want to do on vacation. I think the saying is extremely (apt): If you do what you love, you don’t work a day in your life. We’re unbelievably blessed to be given the opportunity to be in horse racing.”
When’s the last time you took what most people would think of as a vacation?
“Me and Julie have taken some vacations, including the whole family went to Hawaii last year after Christmas.”
No racetracks there.
“No, (but) time with the family. I think that’s my favorite part about horse racing: how involved and how much the whole family cares the whole time — from my parents to Julie to the boys to my in-laws. Easy to follow and fun to be a part of it.”
Julie told me once that you got married on a dark day. A Tuesday, maybe?
“We got married on a Tuesday. All three of our children, she was induced (into) labor on Tuesdays, on dark days. Yeah, our life has worked around horse racing.”
Now you could come up with the record-tying win, record-breaking win at any of six or seven tracks.
“Right now we’re racing here at Ellis Park, Louisiana Downs, Indiana Grand, Monmouth Park and Saratoga on a regular occasion.”
You slipped in a couple at Colonial Downs on Monday, I noticed.
“I got a couple in at Colonial. When a horse is ready to run, you’ve got to find a race for them.”
What will it be like if you’re not there in person when you get the record.
“You’re there in person. I mean, if it happens. I’m anxious for it to happen, and I want to celebrate the accomplishment of it. But you will immediately worry about winning the next one.”
Are you sending Darren Fleming, your assistant here at Ellis, some live shots so he can maybe have a chance at being the one (when you get the record)?
“Everything you enter, you’re trying to win with; that’s kind of the idea.”
But there’s trying to win and then there’s …
“No, we have some very nice horses in this week at Ellis. But I’d be surprised if it happened before the first or second week of August. In the month of August, with meets closing and other meets just starting, we don’t have as many entries as usual.”
Can you give us an update on Midnight Bourbon (the Preakness runner-up who clipped heels and fell in Monmouth Park’s $1 million Haskell), since he did break his maiden last summer at Ellis?
“He’s back jogging.”
That’s amazing he came out of that unscathed.
“It is. Well, I don’t know about the word unscathed. (You don’t know) what it did to his head and stuff like that. His energy level is good. He looks good under tack. He’s got a few abrasions and nicks that need attention, and we’ll doctor those and keep him moving for the time being. But his energy level is very high.”
Final question, the big stakes weekends at Ellis Park are a couple of weeks off. But do you have any horses at this point targeted for Kentucky Downs Preview Weekend or the following week when we have the Ellis Park Derby and the 2-year-old stakes?
“We do. Undecided on exactly who, but we will be represented on those stakes days.”