12/06/2009 12:00AM

Asmussen breaks wins record

Barbara D. Livingston
Steve Asmussen set the record for training wins in a season Sunday, surpassing the mark he had set in 2008.

At this point, Steve Asmussen competes only against himself. Asmussen has far more horses stabled at many more racetracks than any other trainer in the country, and his annual win totals have reached stratospheric heights. Sunday, he topped his 2008 record of 622 training wins in a season when Poppin won the 13th race at Woodbine.

"It's just been very rewarding to have such an amazing run," said Asmussen, reached by phone moments after the record-setting victory. "It doesn't feel like proving anything -- it's just fun to win."

It is the third time Asmussen has set a season win mark. His first came in 2004, when his stable's 555 victories shattered Jack Van Berg's 1976 mark of 497. That number, huge at the time, now seems quaint. With 25 days left in 2009, Asmussen's operation has several winners left. Before all is said and done, his total this year could approach 650.

Asmussen, 44, has started horses at 37 racetracks this year. He has run horses at Woodbine in Canada, and in the United States he has logged starts in New York, Illinois, West Virginia, Kentucky, Delaware, Louisiana, Florida, Indiana, Texas, New Jersey, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Iowa, Oklahoma, New Mexico, and California.

On Saturday, when Asmussen made his last big push toward his 2008 record, he entered 24 horses at seven racing venues. His stable sends out horses at as many class levels as they do racing venues. On any given night, one could find an Asmussen-trained Louisiana-bred running in a $5,000 maiden-claimer at Evangeline Downs.

Yet Asmussen also trained the Horse of the Year the last two seasons, Curlin, and has in his Fair Grounds string one of two leading contenders for the 2009 award, Rachel Alexandra. He has low-level claiming horses he has taken for himself, and he has expensive yearlings purchased by some of the game's most prominent owners. When a new owner calls and asks if Asmussen has room to take on a horse or two, well, of course he does. With so many strings operating simultaneously, room can surely be made somewhere, somehow.

With his 623nd winner of 2009, Asmussen has trained 5,162 winners in his career, the fifth-best career total. The late Dale Baird won 9,445 races. Asmussen also trails active trainers Van Berg, King Leatherbury, and Jerry Hollendorfer. Asmussen also ranks fifth in total earnings, with $153.1 million.

Asmussen tallied 294 wins in 2001 but had a breakout 2002, leading the nation in wins for the first time with 407, seven more than reigning wins kingpin Scott Lake. In 2003, Lake turned the tables, edging Asmussen, 455 wins to 452. Asmussen, of course, responded the only way he knows, with a relentless, intense focus on demonstrating he was top dog. The next year, in 2004, Asmussen shattered Van Berg's 1976 record. After proving his point, Asmussen backed off slightly, winning 473 races in 2005. His 2006 season was severely curtailed by suspension, but Asmussen was back with a 488-win 2007, and he broke his record in 2008, winning 621 races with 3,003 starters.

Consistent? Asmussen's annual win rate has been between 21 and 24 percent every year this millennium.

Asmussen was asked how many more years he thought he might maintain an operation of such size and scope. His answer came as no surprise.

"I'm not tired, if that's what you mean," said the man who had just sent out 57 starters the last three days.