Updated on 08/12/2016 6:23PM

Asmussen shows vulnerable side during Hall of Fame induction

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Steve Asmussen, posing with his family at the ceremony, was inducted into the Hall of Fame on Friday.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Steve Asmussen often exhibits a hardened exterior, never truly revealing what he’s thinking, to the point where sometimes it’s not easy to tell if he won or lost a race.

On Friday, however, Asmussen showed an emotional side rarely seen publicly as he was formally inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame.

Asmussen got choked up sitting in the front row as Julie, his wife of 19 years, introduced him. Later, when talking about his parents, Keith and Marilyn, Steve Asmussen had to stop.

“My dad and my mom. Mom, thank you for the faith you have given us,” Asmussen said before choking up and getting some water while the audience applauded. “I haven’t even been able to say this driving down the road with my windows up.”

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Asmussen talked about the example his father set for him and his brother Cash, a former jockey.

“Everybody in this room is here for the love of horse racing, and growing up in this family allowed an opportunity to experience these things together,” Asmussen said.

Asmussen, 50, was part of an A-list class of Hall of Fame inductees that included jockey Ramon Dominguez and the brilliant racemares Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. The Thoroughbred Tom Ochiltree and jockey Wayne D. Wright were voted in by the Hall of Fame Historic Committee, while Arthur B. “Bull” Hancock Jr. and William Woodward Sr. were inducted in the Pillars of the Turf category.

It was the emotion that Julie and Steve Asmussen displayed that highlighted the two-hour ceremony. Last September, Julie Asmussen was found to have neck and throat cancer. In March, she was declared cancer-free.

The way his wife came through that battle made it “a no-brainer” to have her introduce him, Asmussen said after the ceremony. The couple has three sons, who also came up on stage to present the Hall of Fame plaque.

“The most powerful lesson you have shared with the boys, and me as well, is you never give up, no matter what the battle may be,” Julie Asmussen said, perhaps a veiled reference to the accusations of horse abuse made by People for Ethical Treatment of Animals in 2014. “You wake up every morning and give it your best. Effort is everything.”

Asmussen credited many of his owners for his success – which includes 7,379 wins and $244.9 million in purse money won. He said if it wasn’t for Ron Lance encouraging him to take a string of horses to Birmingham Race Course in 1987, “I’d still be galloping for Dad.”

Among the other owners he thanked were Barbara Banke and her late husband, Jess Jackson, who privately purchased both Curlin and Rachel Alexandra. Curlin was the 2007-08 Horse of the Year and a 2014 Hall of Fame inductee. Rachel Alexandra was the 2009 Horse of the Year and among this year’s celebrants. Asmussen trained both of them.

“Jess was such an amazing man, and I stand here regretting that I didn’t take more of an advantage of the opportunity that I had with him,” Asmussen said.

Rachel Alexandra’s 3-year-old season in 2009 was one for the ages. After dominating fillies for her previous connections – breeder and part-owner Dolphus Morrison and trainer Hal Wiggins – a majority interest in Rachel Alexandra was sold to Jess Jackson’s Stonestreet Stables and a partner, Harold McCormick. She was transferred to Asmussen, who placed her against males for three of her final four starts that year. She won the Preakness and Haskell against 3-year-olds, then defeated older males in the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga.

“I think courage is the main thing that strikes me about her,” Banke said. “Records broken, incredible margins of victory, terrific battles such as the Woodward that she prevailed in.”

It was somewhat appropriate that Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta were inducted together. Though they never met on the track, they had their race in the battle of public opinion.

Zenyatta, two years older than Rachel Alexandra, won her first 19 starts before losing a heartbreaking head decision to Blame in the 2010 Breeders’ Cup Classic, which was her final race.

“It’s amazing to have the girls [enshrined] in the same year,” said Ann Moss, part-owner of Zenyatta, pointing to Banke. Moss owned Zenyatta with her husband, Jerry, the founder of A&M Records.

Zenyatta was named for an album by The Police that was produced on Jerry Moss’s record label.

“Sting has said that Zenyatta doesn’t mean anything in particular, but I think it describes her perfectly,” Ann Moss said. “She has that Zen – inner peace with knowing exactly who she is – and she flows love to all that she meets. And the Yatta, I understand that means celebration, and she’s a lot to celebrate. It was a joy and a privilege to be associated with Zenyatta.”

Tom Durkin, the master of ceremonies and retired race-caller, said his one regret was not having called a race in which Zenyatta ran.

The ceremony ended with the grace and class of Dominguez, whose career came to a premature end due to a head injury suffered in a spill at Aqueduct in 2013.

Dominguez, a three-time Eclipse Award winner who had 4,985 victories, came to the podium without a prepared speech.

“Every time that I decided to do it, I would reflect back on my career, and I would start to cry,” Dominguez said. “These are tears of joy, nothing bad.”

Dominguez dedicated his Hall of Fame honor to his agent, Steve Rushing, saying, “Not only is he a master at what he does, but more important, he’s an outstanding human being.”

During his introduction of Dominguez, Rushing said, “When you look up the definition of Hall of Fame, you will see Ramon Dominguez.”