09/10/2009 11:00PM

Asmussen hits 5,000-win milestone

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Steve Asmussen, 43, started training in 1986 and quickly climbed the leaderboard starting in the mid-1990s.

Steve Asmussen became the fifth trainer to win 5,000 races when Passion Rules easily won a $40,000 maiden claimer on Friday afternoon at Woodbine Race Course.

Unsurprisingly, Asmussen was not in attendance, and Woodbine marked the achievement by posting a photo of the 43-year-old trainer on its infield tote board. The man cannot be everywhere at the same time, after all. Asmussen's amazingly far-flung and hugely successful stable has strings scattered across North America, and on Friday alone, he had horses entered at five different racetracks.

The vast arsenal of racing stock has allowed Asmussen to climb the all-time trainer leaderboard more quickly than one would think possible. He began training only in 1986 and didn't win 100 races in a season until the mid-1990s. But Asmussen has picked up clients and horses at an increasingly furious pace during the last 10 years and has twice set a record for wins in a season, establishing the most recent mark in 2008, when his stable won 621 races. Asmussen, believe it or not, is on pace to break the single-season record again; his stable had 461 victories in 2009 as of Friday afternoon. Asmussen also trained the Horse of the Year in 2007 and 2008, Curlin, and in Rachel Alexandra has a leading contender for the award again this year. He won his first Eclipse Award as the nation's top trainer in 2008.

Asmussen, reached by phone shortly after hitting the milestone, said 5,000 winners would someday make for "great rocking chair talk" with his wife, Julie.

"It's a significant accomplishment made possible by tremendous opportunities and hard work by other people," Asmussen said.

Asmussen won his first race at Ruidoso Downs - his only win in his first year training - and raced at minor venues for several years before beginning his ascent. Asmussen said it was when longtime assistants Scott Blasi and Darren Fleming came on board his operation in the mid-1990s that he began envisioning an operation that could truly grow and prosper.

"Those are the first pieces into place that made this sort of expansion and success possible," said Asmussen. "Having people that are capable of great things."

Asmussen harked back to Valid Expectations, one of his first good horses, winning the Sugar Bowl Stakes on Dec. 31, 1995, at Fair Grounds.

"That was the first year we'd won 100 races in a year," Asmussen said. "It seemed like the greatest thing ever. To fathom that I've won 5,000 races? I had 15 starts, one win, and $2,300 in earnings the first year I was training!"

The three trainers just ahead of him in career wins, Jerry Hollendorfer, King Leatherbury, and Jack Van Berg, are still active. And Asmussen still has miles to go before nearing career win leader Dale Baird, who amassed 9,445 victories. Do not count him out.

Top 10 trainers by lifetime wins

1. Dale Baird - 9,445

2. Jack Van Berg* - 6,393

3. King Leatherbury* - 6,279

4. Jerry Hollendorfer* - 5,459

5. Steve Asmussen* - 5,000

6. Scott Lake* - 4,745

7. Richard Hazelton* - 4,735

8. D. Wayne Lukas* - 4,539

9. Frank Merrill - 3,974

10. William Mott* - 3,898

* - currently active