11/22/2008 12:00AM

Asmussen outdoes himself this year


Curlin, the 2007 Horse of the Year, was to stay in training, so too Student Council and Zanjero. Pyro was a leading contender for the Kentucky Derby, and newcomers like J Be K had joined the barn. The year 2008 dawned bright for trainer Steve Asmussen, and he has made plenty of hay while the sun shined. Asmussen has set a personal record for purse earnings with more than $25.3 million and as the weekend neared, it was imminent that he would pass the single-season record for training victories that he smashed four years ago.

Through Friday, Asmussen had won 553 North American races this year, two short of the 555 he won in 2004. Four years ago, he obliterated Jack Van Berg's record of 496 wins, which had stood since 1976.

Van Berg was the first trainer to expand his stable to have significant numbers of horses concurrently at several different tracks. At the time, he mostly trained claiming horses; Alysheba was still a decade away. D. Wayne Lukas took the idea and refined it in the 1980s, most significantly in terms of the quality of horses he had at multiple outposts.

Asmussen's operation is an amalgamation of Van Berg and Lukas, combining quality and quantity, ranging from Curlin to $5,000 claimers. Through mid-afternoon Friday, he had started 2,641 horses this year, an average of more than eight starters per day. He has averaged 1.7 wins per day - nearly 12 per week or 51 per month - and is on pace to win 600 races this year though he said it was unlikely he would hit that mark.

"It would be nice, but the reality is Churchill is closing on Nov. 29, Woodbine ends Dec. 7, and Remington closes on the 14th," Asmussen said in a telephone interview. "We'll have very little to run the last month of the year. The last two weeks, we'll be at about 20 percent of what we normally run."

Asmussen is on the road most of the week, flying to different tracks. But earlier this week, he was at home in Arlington, Texas, celebrating his 43rd birthday and reflecting over the year that is about to end and how different he expects 2009 will be.

"We finished with great momentum at the end of last year. We had a crazy-good meet at Fair Grounds, and it just snowballed," Asmussen said. "This is simply a matter of the opportunities we were given. Curlin stayed in training. Everybody stayed in. Next year, it's going to be the opposite. Curlin. Zanjero. Pyro. Student Council. Every day, completely irreplaceable horses go walking out of the shed row."

Those four are all going scheduled to go to stud in 2009, including Curlin, despite the ongoing legal troubles that surround him. Last week, when it was announced by Jess Jackson, Curlin's majority owner, that Curlin would enter stud in 2009, Jackson said it was possible Curlin could race once more.

Don't get your hopes up. Though he trains every day at Churchill Downs, Curlin has not had a workout since his fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Oct. 25. In terms of possible races for Curlin before he begins stud duty, Asmussen said, "I don't see anything worthy of him. I do not see a match."

The exodus of quality horses from Asmussen's barn, combined with his desire to see his wife and three kids more often, has led Asmussen to re-evaluate how his stable will look next year.

"You're guessing where racing wants to go. That's why we're so spread out," Asmussen said. "I'm looking to spend more time at home. I want to get it to a manageable level. I'm trying to figure out where there's growth, if any. But, overall, I want to cut back and concentrate on quality."

Per usual, Asmussen will have his best horses this winter at Fair Grounds. That group usually goes to Keeneland, then Churchill Downs, and the very best to Saratoga for the summer. But Asmussen said he envisions having a bigger presence next year at Woodbine, where purses have been enhanced by revenue from alternate forms of gaming.

"The Woodbine experiment went well, and I think we can do a lot better there," he said.