08/27/2008 12:00AM

Far worse than any tough beat

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainer Steve Asmussen says fatally injured exercise rider Parker Buckley will be missed.

Sitting atop his gray stable pony in the early morning hours of Aug. 18, all seemed right in trainer Steve Asmussen's world. His reigning champion Curlin had just put in a smashing workout over Saratoga's main track, and several other of his top stakes horses had breezed similarly well over the training track.

In an instant, however, Asmussen's world took a dramatic turn. Shortly after a set of his horses galloped by him at the seven-furlong marker on the Oklahoma training track, someone announced there was a loose horse and that a rider was down. Another person was trying to get Asmussen's attention to let him know it was his horse and rider.

Asmussen galloped over to the five-furlong pole to see that his horse was okay and that exercise rider Parker Buckley III was sitting up and talking to paramedics. Asmussen, who had initially thought that perhaps Buckley had broken a leg, rode his pony back to his barn while Buckley, somewhat woozy, was being transferred to Saratoga Hospital to be examined. Less than 24 hours later, Buckley, six days shy of his 41st birthday, had died.

The death of Buckley, whom Asmussen had known for 21 years and employed for the last 16 months, has had a profound impact on the trainer who is in the midst of the best year of his 22-year career.

"When you go from [thinking] that he had a broken leg to he's gone, to this point it's been impossible for me to catch up with," Asmussen, 42, said by phone from Dallas on Tuesday, one day before he was to attend Buckley's funeral in Florida. "It is a loss or a vacancy that won't be filled."

Asmussen had just spent a whirlwind couple of days. Beginning Friday he traveled from Kentucky to Saratoga, where on Saturday he saddled favorites Pyro and J Be K to a third- and sixth-place finish, respectively, in the Travers and King's Bishop. On Sunday, he flew from Albany to California, where he watched Student Council finish fifth in the Pacific Classic.

Pyro had traffic trouble and J Be K got pressed through hot fractions. Student Council may have regressed from a career-best effort when second in the Whitney.

"Those are understandable," Asmussen said. "Parker dying is not understandable."

Asmussen had met Buckley in 1987 at Birmingham Race Course. Though their careers took them on different paths, they had stayed in touch. When Buckley decided to retire from race-riding, he called Asmussen looking for a job. In May 2007, Buckley went to work for Asmussen as an assistant and exercise rider. In an operation as spread out as Asmussen's, Buckley had the tools to be a central cog in the machine.

"Parker was somebody that me and [assistant Scott Blasi] relied on heavily and had for some time," said Asmussen, noting that Buckley rode J Be K and on occasion Pyro.

Three days after he helps bury his friend, Asmussen will be back in the spotlight when he runs defending Horse of the Year Curlin in Saturday's Grade 1 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga. The Woodward marks Curlin's first start at Saratoga, where he has spent the last two summers training.

"I'm excited about the opportunity to run him at Saratoga," Asmussen said. "I think the fans at Saratoga between last summer and this summer are very anxious to see him run. With who he is, it's a very special thing to be part of."

Professionally, this has the making of a very special year for Asmussen. With 418 wins through Monday, he is on pace to eclipse the single-season record of 555 wins for a trainer he set in 2004. His horses have earned more than $16.1 million with several big-money races remaining in the last quarter of the year.

"I think the amount of wins and the money we make is a byproduct of the opportunities that we've been given, the horses that we're privileged to handle," said Asmussen, who has won 14 graded stakes in 2008, four shy of his personal best of 18. "The wins and the money come with them."

In addition to Curlin, Asmussen will be represented this weekend at Saratoga in the Grade 1 Hopeful with Cognito and Grade 1 Spinaway with Jardin.

Meanwhile, Asmussen said that Student Council will train up to the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Oct. 25. J Be K will run back in the Grade 1 Vosburgh at Belmont on Sept. 27, while Pyro could run next in either the Super Derby at Louisiana Downs on Sept. 20 or the Indiana Derby on Oct. 4.

The uncertainty of what will happen in those races is part of the business. The death of a friend and co-worker in the prime of life isn't supposed to be.