Trainer known ... in winner's circle

Asmussen: Near the top of the win list for two years, Steve Asmussen is no Baffert or Lukas in popularity. But that could change in a matter of minutes on Saturday.

Kentucky Derby

May 02, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Bob Baffert thought the only way he could get here was to buy a horse. D. Wayne Lukas wasn't coming until two weeks ago. Nick Zito isn't here at all.

But Steve Asmussen, quietly and with little fanfare, came to the Kentucky Derby with two contenders. He leads North American trainers in wins through the first four months of this year. Last year, he ranked second in wins.

Yet Asmussen, looking as much like a professor as a lifelong horseman, walks through airports without turning heads. He is perhaps the most accomplished trainer, not to mention perhaps the wisest and most articulate, who is not nationally known.

That could change Saturday in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs. Asmussen will saddle Private Emblem, winner of the Arkansas Derby, for this country's most celebrated horse race. He had hoped also to start Windward Passage, but the promising gelding just missed making the 20-horse field.

Would a victory by Private Emblem propel Asmusssen into the top rank of trainers in this country?

"I think he's probably already there," said Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor, the partnership group that owns Windward Passage. "And if he's not, he's pretty darn close."

Asmussen is not a household name even among many racing fans because he does not labor in California or New York. His training titles have come at tracks in Texas, Louisiana and Kentucky. He hasn't won a Triple Crown race - yet. He's tried only twice, finishing fifth in the Preakness two years ago with Snuck In and ninth in the Derby last year with Fifty Stars.

He doesn't seem to care about fame. All he wants to do is win.

"The man loves to win," said James Cassels, one of two Texans who own Private Emblem. "It's an obsession with him to win. ... Coming from his mom and dad, horses are his life."

Asmussen, 36, operates at the core of one of racing's most respected families. His mother, Marilyn, trains horses, and his father, Keith, rides them. They operate the renowned El Primero training center in Laredo, Texas. Asmussen's older brother, Cash, was an international riding star, winning famous races in Europe and the United States.

"I'm the luckiest person in the world," Steve Asmussen said. "I always have been. Having grown up in racing, having absolutely no desire to do anything else, how much luckier could I be?"

After the conclusion of morning training, when other horsemen might head to the golf course, Asmussen will likely slip into stalls and comb horses' manes. In the afternoon you'll likely find him on his knees rubbing horses' ankles. At night he watches race replays and reads racing publications. Few horsemen, if any, know more about their universe than Asmussen knows.

"But you can't believe how ignorant I am about anything else," he said, laughing.

He said that invariably, when talking with old friends in other professions, they mention where they're getting ready to go on vacation, what they're getting ready to do different from what they do every day.

"I am on vacation," Asmussen said. "When I woke up this morning where else would I want to be? ... I'm so pathetic."

He laughed again. He's so pathetic, he continued, that his mother had to fix him up with one of her best friend's daughters. He married the young woman - on a dark day (a day with no racing) before going back to the track the next morning.

He and his wife, Julie, also from a horse family, have two sons. Labor needed to be induced both times. (They made sure the babies were born on dark days.) Julie is pregnant with their third child, due in November.

Asmussen manages a huge roster of 164 horses, stabled at Churchill Downs, Keeneland and Lone Star Park. He sends horses to stakes races around the country, but the only place he ventures outside mid-America for stabling is Saratoga in New York. Despite the intense competition at that premier summer meet, Asmussen holds his own, especially with 2-year-olds.

"And I feel like we have some fabulous 2-year-olds," he said.

But what about his 3-year-old, Private Emblem, and his chance in the 128th Kentucky Derby?

He will be a long shot in a Derby most consider the most wide-open in years. Private Emblem, a son of the Maryland sire Our Emblem, has won three straight stakes, including the Arkansas Derby by an overpowering 4 1/2 lengths.

Asmussen did not predict victory. He did not suggest a wager on his horse to show. He merely replied, when pressed: "I expect to win every time. I think I'm great at my job and can get a horse's best race out of him. I can do that better than anybody I know."

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