10/29/2014 12:58PM

Asmussen rises above the storm

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Barbara D. Livingston
Steve Asmussen has amassed 250 wins so far in 2014.

ARCADIA, Calif. – There were 174 horses entered in this year’s Breeders’ Cup races, and since all are running in Grade 1 races, it would stand to reason that just about every one looks fantastic. Some, though, stand out more than others, and if a list of finalists for a beauty contest were put out this week, Untapable undoubtedly would be on that shortlist.

Untapable’s bay coat has been resplendent all week at Santa Anita, and she has trained well for the past month here. She will try to cap off her year with a victory Friday in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Even before she runs Friday, though, Untapable has seemingly locked up the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly, her victories this year including the Kentucky Oaks.

That Oaks win was “gratifying,” according to her trainer, Steve Asmussen. The suggestion was made that the win might have been “satisfying,” too. Asmussen, an intelligent man who wants to use precise words always, politely objected.

“Satisfied is a movie – win the Oaks, roll credits,” he said at his Santa Anita barn this week. “You can’t be satisfied in this business.”

Much of what made the win gratifying was the support Asmussen received from the connections of Untapable – her owner and breeder, Ron Winchell, and David Fiske, Winchell’s manager – during a tumultuous spring that saw Asmussen and his top assistant, Scott Blasi, portrayed in an article in The New York Times, and an accompanying video produced by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as not properly caring for their horses.

Asmussen lost clients and had his name removed from the Hall of Fame ballot.

“I can’t say enough about how much support I got from Ron Winchell and his family and from David Fiske through all this,” Asmussen said. “It meant a lot to the crew, and it meant a lot to all of us that everyone saw how special a racehorse Untapable is.”

After winning two of her next three starts, her lone loss coming against boys in the Haskell Invitational, Untapable’s next step is the Distaff.

“We’re extremely proud of her ability, blessed at how good she is, how sound she is, and realize how fortunate we are to be in this position considering how hard she ran earlier in the year,” Asmussen said. “That said, we realize we have a tall order ahead of us in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.”

Asmussen said his staff “stepped up, supported everyone from the inside” during the toughest times.

Asmussen is the second-winningest trainer of all time, with 6,884 victories. He trained the Horse of the Year three straight years. Those are among the reasons he seemed a slam dunk to go into the Hall of Fame this year before he had his nomination “tabled,” according to the Hall of Fame.

Months removed from the white noise of spring, these are the facts of where things stand in 2014 for Asmussen:

◗ He is second among trainers with 250 wins.

◗ He is fourth in purse earnings with more than $10 million.

◗ He has raced in 15 states – Arkansas, California, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Texas, and West Virginia – plus Manitoba, Canada.

◗ He has started 1,147 runners, more than any other trainer in North America.

With all that action in all those places, his lone 2014 citation – according to a national database of racing rulings from most major jurisdictions – was a $200 fine for having a horse improperly shod for a race, resulting in a scratch at Fair Grounds in March.

In the aftermath of the video and New York Times report, investigations were launched by racing commissions in Kentucky and New York. Neither has announced any findings yet.

“They are being thorough,” said Clark Brewster, who is Asmussen’s attorney and has been a longtime owner with Asmussen. “I’d rather it’s delayed and thorough so there can be no accusations of being hasty.”

According to Brewster, “Steve’s position, his directions to me, were whatever they want to see, show it to them.”

“Vet records, current employees, former employees, owners, documents, training charts in their original forms, everything,” Brewster said in a telephone interview this week. “Steve’s position is that he has nothing to hide and wants to fully cooperate. Nobody lawyered up.”

Brewster maintains that the nine-minute video did not contain “a single violation of the rules of racing.”

“The videotaping goes on for five months, and then seven months elapse until the tape is released,” he said. “There’s not a single rule violation alleged by PETA. The public’s concern is that people are drugging horses. You have five months’ surveillance, audio, video, interviewing vets with hidden video, and not a single violation.

“You couldn’t have had a more transparent examination by the enemy. With that kind of scrutiny, I think you can safely say there’s not been a trainer looked at more thoroughly than Steve Asmussen.”

Blasi was fired because of the coarse language he used on the video, but he was rehired after four months inwardly examining his behavior and spending considerable time with his teenage son, who graduated from high school and was preparing for a career in the military.

Asmussen said that for him, “through any adversity, it’s essential to learn from it.”

“In this game, you’re trying to modify and correct everything, opportunities to improve – your relations, your effort,” he said. “I can’t say how much I greatly appreciate the amount of support I’ve received from my contemporaries. I’m blessed to be around these horses and blessed for the opportunity we have this weekend.”