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Blasi in supporting role of a lifetime
NEW ORLEANS - As Rachel Alexandra wheeled into the stretch at Fair Grounds Race Course, ready to finish the last quarter-mile of a five-furlong workout Feb. 18, a man on a gray pony stationed toward the finish line signaled subtly to Rachel Alexandra's rider, Dominic Terry. The man pushed his hand toward the ground. Rachel had started her workout - a key workout, the fourth-to-last before her 2010 debut in the March 13 New Orleans Ladies - at a breakneck pace. The meaning of the signal was clear: Slow down.
Rachel Alexandra's trainer, Steve Asmussen, sat on his own pony, not far from the man whose signal would help ensure a suitable breeze for one of the best-known horses in the world. The man doing the signaling was Scott Blasi.
It's unsurprising that Blasi, not Asmussen, micromanaged the business of Rachel's morning work. Blasi is one of eight assistants Asmussen employs. All play an important role in one of the most successful and prolific operations in racing history. But it's Blasi who has been by Rachel Alexandra's side almost every day since she joined the Asmussen string at Churchill Downs last April. It was Blasi who spent six weeks in Dubai in the winter of 2008, serving as Asmussen's proxy as Curlin prepped for, then won, the Dubai World Cup at Nad al Sheba. It was Blasi who traveled around with Asmussen's first Grade 1 winner, Dreams Gallore, and it was to Blasi that Asmussen handed an Eclipse Award statue in January, the one Asmussen had just won for being the leading trainer of 2009.
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"What's unique about Scott's position is that he has a big say in the running of that barn," said trainer David Carroll.
Carroll, a 16-year trainer, once worked for a big-name trainer, Shug McGaughey, and can observe Blasi much of each year at Fair Grounds, Churchill Downs, and Saratoga.
"He's a huge part of the success that the Steve Asmussen stable has had, and I think Steve would be the first person to say that," Carroll said. "Scott keeps the whole thing going. There's a lot of pressure on him. He can be rough around the edges, but he's obviously a tremendous horseman, and I think he plays the biggest part as an assistant of anyone in the country."
Blasi, 36, grew up on a 180-acre farm in rural Kansas. Most of the land was leased, and Blasi's father mainly sold feed for a living, training Quarter Horses on the side. On the Blasi property, in the middle of a wheat field, sat a small racetrack where Scott learned to ride and exercised horses to help put himself through college. Blasi went to veterinarian's school, dropped out, and found himself working on the racetrack more or less full time.
Through his older brother Greg, Blasi had found occasional work while still in school galloping for a young trainer named Steve Asmussen. In 1995, Asmussen hired Scott as an assistant trainer.
Fifteen years. That's a long term as an understudy. Many young men and women who possess real horsemanship skills - like Blasi does - already are on their way out the door of a major operation the minute they take an assistant's job. They have moved one rung closer to a goal they have kept clearly in mind: being a head trainer.
"A lot of assistants go with someone like Todd [Pletcher], they spend a few years, and they're gone," said Carroll. "Scott and Steve started from a handful of horses, very modest horses, and grew and grew. I look at them as partners, as getting the job done together."
Asmussen, 41, had taken out his trainer's license in 1986. He won one race that year. In 1987, he won 27. By 1995, Asmussen was up to 130 winners for the year, and his stable had earnings of over $1 million, but Asmussen still was a boss getting his hands dirty.
"On that level, and running for that money, your job title consisted of just lots of labor," Asmussen said. "You were the help. You had to cover more bases. Scott was an assistant that galloped all morning long and did up horses when he was done galloping. We both had to. We couldn't afford the overhead, and we were required to do multiple tasks."
Said Blasi: "We did everything - it was me and him. The whole time it felt like you were scraping and clawing for everything. It's kind of a clich , but you wonder now how you used to do it. It was a lot."
Blasi had boarded the train at an opportune moment. For owners Bob and Lee Ackerley, Asmussen had a 2-year-old of 1995 named Valid Expectations, and in Asmussen's view, this horse changed his career.
"The timing was perfect for both of us," Asmussen said. "Everything that I had done before Valid was preparation for that. I don't know how to put it how significant that horse was - my first graded stakes win, my first stakes win at Fair Grounds, at Hot Springs, in New York, in Kentucky, was all that horse."
The Asmussen stable never looked back. By 1999, the barn amassed $4.1 million in annual earnings. In 2002, Asmussen won 407 races with stable earnings of $10.2 million. In 2004, it was a record-setting 555 wins and $14 million in purse money.
"It seemed like everything happened so fast," said Blasi.
These days, Blasi works about 70 hours per week. Gets to the barn at 5 every morning, gets done at about 11, comes back to feed late every afternoon. That's a dark-day schedule. Race days, there are the hundreds of Asmussen starters that have to be prepped and saddled. This is the Blasi routine every week of the year save two, when Blasi gets vacation. Single but in a relationship, and protective of his privacy, he visits his 13-year-old son, Blaine, in Minnesota during his down time.
And there's another major component to this job: Hours and hours of talking to Asmussen.
"It's just a dialogue," Asmussen said. "You're constantly talking. This is what we're interested in. It's what we discuss. Talking about previous horses and previous situations, and present horses and present situations, and the comparisons of them.
"Training racehorses is kind of a herding process, it's not a placement process," he said. "You don't pick them up and put them there. You're constantly trying to work in a direction. You're trying to get somewhere. It's a gradual process, and I think that's where all the dialogue comes in. I think Scott and I worked very closely together early, and I think because of that, the terminology and the dialogue are extremely comfortable when you're trying to communicate. There's a very good understanding of what he's trying to say."
"I went to work for Steve when I was pretty young," Blasi said. "I think we learned about a lot of what we think is right together."
Asmussen, it must be said, does not enjoy a reputation as a benevolent, easy-going type. He can be quick to anger. He does not suffer fools easily. He is a tough boss.
"No, I don't think I'm a hard person to work for, but I do think that for some people I'm an impossible person to work for," Asmussen said. "Square peg, round hole thing - some things don't fit."
Parts of Blasi's personality, though, aren't much different from Asmussen's.
"I'm a little bit of a hothead myself," he said. "But you learn to pick your battles. Fighting with every security guard that comes along, it will wear you out."
Blasi said he believes Asmussen has "mellowed quite a bit" since their early days together. Still, this is not a Hallmark card portrait of soft-focus camaraderie.
"Steve has to be the way he is," Blasi said. "That's how he got here. But I've got strong opinions, as well. Is there a little friction? Yeah, absolutely. But I can promise you this: Out of most disagreements, something good will come. A lot of times we might both be thinking the same thing, but we're going about it differently. He pays all the bills, and he's the one who has to answer all the questions, so his opinion in the end is what matters."
This is the time of year, winter at Fair Grounds, when Blasi and Asmussen see each other the most. Blasi's string, Asmussen's "A" stock, is here, and much of the time so is Asmussen. Come spring, summer, and early autumn, Asmussen travels more frequently, tending to his various divisions scattered across the U.S and at Woodbine in Canada. Blasi moves from Fair Grounds to Churchill, then on to Saratoga in July, and back to Churchill in October.
"There are certain times where you spend a lot of time on your own, and I think there's always a little bit of adjustment when we're side by side again," Blasi said. "When you're talking to him on the phone, you always say how you feel. That's the relationship we have. I can tell him, 'This is what I think.' Now, when he's standing right there beside you, he might not be as much interested."
Blasi was once a head trainer himself. In 2006, Blasi won 198 races, sixth-most in the country that year and 43 fewer than Asmussen. That was the season Asmussen served six-month concurrent suspensions after two horses generated positive drug tests, one for mepivicaine in Louisiana, another for acepromazine in New Mexico. When Asmussen began taking his days, Blasi took over the operational reins. And, this being the racetrack, whispering about Blasi's intentions grew louder as Asmussen's suspension dragged on.
"There were a lot of rumors when he had the days that I was going out on my own, and it's funny the way stuff travels around the backside," Blasi said. "I just sat down and addressed that with him. If we're thinking it, we generally say it to each other. To go out on my own after what he went through with the six months, with the suspension, I mean, what worse thing could you do? The thought never crossed my mind."
Blasi, in fact, contends he harbors no aspirations of training on his own.
"If I ever thought about it, I'd sit down and talk to Steve about it. I really would," he said. "But think about it. Right after the suspension, Curlin walked into our barn, and what could be better than that? And then you have Rachel walk into your barn."
"Would I want to leave the position he's in?" asked Carroll, the trainer. "No. This can be too much work and not enough money. And being around horses that nice?"
Dallas Stewart, a trainer who follows the same circuit as Blasi, worked 11 years for Wayne Lukas and was a Lukas assistant for about seven years. Stewart galloped Kentucky Derby winner Winning Colors and had a hand in four Kentucky Derby wins as part of the Lukas operation. But Stewart had the itch to train on his own not long after starting to work for Lukas.
"I always kind of thought about it after a little bit of time with Wayne," Stewart said. "When the opportunity presented itself, I had made a decision. I knew things would work out for me. I was ready."
Other assistants, though, are perfectly happy playing second fiddle. Frank Bernis has worked under trainer Tom Amoss for 21 years.
"No, I don't find it frustrating," Bernis said. "That's just the choice I made. If I wanted to train, I could train, but I don't want to. It's 24 hours a day. Now, when Tom's around, when I leave the barn, I don't think about what's happening at the barn unless somebody calls me with something. Whereas if you're a trainer, you're never off the clock."
Asmussen was asked what it would be like if Blasi struck out on his own, and he said he didn't really know.
"That's kind of a weird call," he said. "I think collectively we're all stronger than you'd be individually. I think that there's no way that any of us would get as much done or accomplish near as much without each other."
What Asmussen, Blasi, longtime assistant Darren Fleming, and the rest of Asmussen's sprawling team have accomplished boggles the mind: 650 wins in 2009, a record that won't be approached by another trainer any time soon, if ever. Horse of the Year awards for Curlin in 2007 and 2008, and for Rachel Alexandra in 2009. And now, the challenge of preparing Rachel Alexandra for a race against two-time champion Zenyatta next month in the Apple Blossom Invitational at Oaklawn Park.
When Rachel leaves Fair Grounds for Oaklawn, Scott Blasi will leave with her, keeping a watchful eye trained fully on all Rachel does. Asmussen wouldn't have it any other way.
"It's the best feeling in the world for me," Blasi said. "Seeing what makes them tick, getting them ready to do something, to come back, to circle a race and make it happen. You pay so much attention to detail. Everything you do with Rachel, every detail, that's what matters. It takes a great horse to do it. I like the challenge of facing Zenyatta. And there's no one who's going to work harder to do it than me."
* Jay Privman's Q&A with Rachel Alexandra's owner, Jess Jackson
* Jay Hovdey on Zenyatta's jockey, Mike Smith
* Handicapping roundups from Aqueduct, Gulfstream, Oaklawn, and Santa Anita
* Glenye Cain Oakford on the mixed messages sent by the year's first juvenile sales
* Plus video analysis of the weekend's biggest stakes