10/28/2011 2:07PM

Churchill Downs: Asmussen ready to get back down to business

Barbara D. Livingston
Steve Asmussen, on his pony at Churchill Thursday, has 40 horses on the grounds for the 21-day meet that opens Sunday.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Retired Keeneland publicity director Jim Williams used to talk about the dramatic contrasts in fall meets at Keeneland and Churchill Downs. Indeed, the changes in weather, daylight hours, clientele demographics, and venues can make a racing fan feel like he’s stepping out of one world and into another.

Here’s another change at Churchill: Steve Asmussen gets more involved – way more. In the weeks that follow Saratoga, where the “A” string of his massive stable has become quite prominent in recent years, Asmussen stays active for a few weeks at Belmont Park before going low-key for the three-week Keeneland meet. And by the time Churchill rolls around in late October, Asmussen is ready to start firing again, as evidenced by the five fall-meet training titles (and 10 overall) he has earned at Churchill.

By way of contrast, Asmussen has one Keeneland fall title, having tied Nick Zito in 2004 for the honor, and he was 2 for 14 going into Friday action at the 2011 Keeneland fall meet.

“A lot of it has to do with the ebb and flow you go through,” said Asmussen, who is close to joining Dale Baird, Jack Van Berg, King Leatherbury, and Jerry Hollendorfer as the only trainers to ever win 6,000 races, having entered Friday action with 5,974. “We run awfully hard at Saratoga, and to be honest, with the strong division we’ve got in Canada to compete on the Polytrack at Woodbine, there’s no real urgency to get everything here to run over the same kind of surface at Keeneland.”

Asmussen, who turns 46 on Nov.  18, has experienced the pinnacle of this sport in recent years as the trainer of Curlin, the 2007-08 Horse of the Year, and Rachel Alexandra, the 2009 Horse of the Year. Yet he has never stopped immersing himself in all the details, however small, that go into operating a huge stable on several simultaneous fronts. Partly by maximizing his ambition and possessing a remarkable ability to multi-task and retain facts, he has built an empire that knows few bounds – including here at Churchill.

“This is a great place to train a racehorse,” said Asmussen, whose primary residence is in Arlington, Tex., and several years ago bought a home some 15 minutes east of Churchill. “We just sent a string down to New Orleans, but we’ve got 40 head here, and they’re all ready to run. That’s a lot of horses for a 21-day meet. Obviously the meet starts out very strong with the Breeders’ Cup being here again, and we’re just glad to be in the position to participate.”

Although Asmussen went a decidedly subpar 1 for 23 at the Churchill spring meet in juvenile races – yet was still strong enough in other categories to win the training title – his 2-year-old crop clearly has blossomed. He is scheduled to have starters in six of the 11 Stars of Tomorrow races on the opening-day card Sunday, and that number would have been bigger if not for the Breeders’ Cup. “I hate when that happens,” he said with a smile.

The Asmussen babies pre-entered in BC races include My Miss Aurelia, the likely favorite in the $2 million BC Juvenile Fillies. His others are Seeker in the new Juvenile Sprint, Daddy Nose Best in the Juvenile Turf, and Sabercat in the Juvenile.

Beyond the Breeders’ Cup, of course, Asmussen will cast a major presence here through the end of the meet Nov. 27. “It’s a great time of year,” he said.