08/10/2016 1:26PM

Forever linked, Rachel Alexandra and Asmussen enter Hall of Fame together

Barbara D. Livingston
Rachel Alexandra and trainer Steve Asmussen (center) will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame together on Friday.

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Rachel Alexandra posted a series of historic victories during an audacious sophomore campaign. Steve Asmussen, who saddled her for the majority of those, is one of the winningest trainers in the history of racing. The duo were seeming no-brainers for election to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame this year despite being on one of the deepest ballots in recent memory.

However, the road to the Hall of Fame wasn’t smooth – and both responded to their challenges like champions. Asmussen has continued to achieve at a high level while weathering a series of professional and personal challenges. Meanwhile, Rachel Alexandra nearly lost her life, bouncing back from a veterinary emergency with the courage she displayed on the racetrack.

“To be able to go in with Rachel is quite special,” Asmussen said. “She’s amazing and then some. She’s indescribable is what she is.”

Asmussen is a two-time Eclipse Award winner, earning those accolades as his Hall of Famers Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, both campaigned in majority by the late Jess Jackson and wife Barbara Banke’s Stonestreet Farm, were consecutive Horse of the Year honorees. Asmussen saddled Curlin, who retired as North America’s leading money winner, to win eight Grade 1 events, including the Preakness, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup, and two editions of the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

That set the table for the tremendously popular Rachel Alexandra, who lit the world on fire by winning the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/4 lengths under a hand ride from Hall of Famer Calvin Borel. The Medaglia d’Oro filly was subsequently purchased by Jackson from owner-breeder Dolphus Morrison and transferred from trainer Hal Wiggins to Asmussen. Her take-no-prisoners season continued less than two weeks after the purchase when she defeated Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird in the Preakness, becoming the first filly since 1924 to win the classic.

:: HALL OF FAME: Watch Friday's induction ceremony live on DRF.com

Rachel Alexandra decimated her own division again in the Mother Goose Stakes, winning by 19 1/4 lengths in another hand ride, then defeated eventual champion Summer Bird by six lengths in the Haskell Invitational. Jackson elected to conclude her season against older males in the Woodward Stakes. Pressured throughout while on the lead, she held on for a game head victory, “raising the rafters” at Saratoga, according to Tom Durkin’s call, and becoming the first female to win the Woodward. Her 8-for-8 campaign earned her Horse of the Year honors over Zenyatta.

Rachel Alexandra, who also was a graded stakes winner at ages 2 and 4, retired following the 2010 season with a record of 19-13-5-0 and earnings of $3,506,730.

“She set standards and records that no filly before her ever achieved,” Jackson said at the time of her retirement. “And I suspect it will be quite a while before a 3-year-old filly ever equals or surpasses her achievements. Although her fans were thrilled by a series of spectacular victories, I believe they, as we, were simply awed time and again by her sheer beauty, courage, and athleticism.”

Before his death in early 2011 following a long battle with cancer, Jackson had planned the mating of Curlin and Rachel Alexandra; the resulting colt, delivered in January 2012, was thus christened Jess’s Dream. Rachel Alexandra delivered her second foal, a Bernardini filly with a heart-shaped marking on her forehead, during Valentine’s Day week in 2013, prompting the name Rachel’s Valentina.

But the day after delivering the filly, the mare began to exhibit signs of distress and was rushed to Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital. She underwent surgery to repair a life-threatening injury to her small colon suffered during the delivery, battled a bacterial infection, and overcame other complications, including an internal abscess. The mare remained at the clinic for more than six weeks before returning home to Stonestreet. Throughout her ordeal, Rood and Riddle issued regular updates on her condition, with one noting that her attending veterinarians were “inspired by her strength.” Banke said the mare is unlikely to be bred again as a precaution.

The recently retired Rachel’s Valentina went on to become a Grade 1 winner at Saratoga and contested the Kentucky Oaks shortly after this year’s Hall of Fame announcement, making it a heady spring for Stonestreet.

“It’s a very exciting time for us,” Banke said. “Obviously, she is out of a mare very dear to my heart.

“It’s also special to me how excited and engaged race fans have been about following Rachel Alexandra.”

Classic winners Rachel Alexandra and Curlin have highlighted a career in which Asmussen has climbed to second in North American history with 7,379 wins and fourth in earnings with $244,994,807 through Tuesday. He saddled Creator to win this year’s Belmont Stakes and has won two editions of the Kentucky Oaks, with Summerly (2005) and the champion Untapable (2014), the latter also winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Asmussen’s other Breeders’ Cup victories came in the 2011 Juvenile Fillies with the champion My Miss Aurelia, the 2012 Dirt Mile with Tapizar, and the 2011 Turf Sprint with Regally Ready. He has led the nation in wins nine times and earnings thrice, ranking in the top 10 in both categories every year since 2000.

Asmussen was a finalist for the Hall of Fame in 2014, the year Curlin was inducted. But that March, a bombshell dropped as the animal-rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, based on video obtained by one of its employees who worked undercover in the Asmussen barn, filed complaints about the trainer alleging animal abuse, misuse of drugs, and fraud related to stable employees. The New York State Gaming Commission and the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission launched investigations into the allegations, and the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame decided to table the trainer’s nomination, removing him from the ballot.

Asmussen was cleared by the Kentucky commission in January 2015, with the commission stating that the allegations “had neither a factual or scientific basis.” The New York commission took even longer before declaring last November that the most serious allegations were “unfounded.” And thus Asmussen, who was kept out of Hall of Fame consideration while the process was pending, was declared eligible for the ballot this year and was promptly voted in alongside his greatest filly.

The PETA upheaval wasn’t the only turmoil the Asmussen family has faced in recent years as Julie, the trainer’s wife of two decades with whom he has three sons, was diagnosed with neck and throat cancer last September. Asmussen prioritized staying by her side as Gun Runner and Creator targeted the spring classics, entrusting the majority of their care to assistants Scott Blasi and Darren Fleming. In March, after months of radiation, chemotherapy, and therapy, Julie Asmussen’s scans were clear.

And thus the Hall of Fame induction becomes even more of a celebration for Asmussen, who is a family man with deep connections to the industry.

“It’s a great celebration of family and friends,” Asmussen said. “I’m an extension of [my parents], and this is their accomplishment as well. I think what is beautiful about it is it is such a shared thing with the barn and with everyone who is involved in it.

“To to be able to celebrate and share that with your family means everything. Everything,” he said. “Racing for me is a family affair. I grew up in my parents’ barn, and they’re still a huge part of it.”

Asmussen has earned a reputation for developing difficult horses – particularly the famously talented but high-strung offspring of the Winchell family and Gainesway Farm’s supersire Tapit, such as Untapable and Creator. The Winchells have been loyal Asmussen clients for more than two decades; Tapit was, in fact, broken by his father, Keith, in Texas, as was Untapable.

“Very proud of her being a Winchell homebred and getting early training at my parents’ place,” Asmussen said.

Creator was the first horse WinStar Farm sent to Asmussen, with its president, Elliott Walden, a former trainer, complimenting Asmussen’s horsemanship.

“Steve’s done extremely well with some Tapits. They can be a little difficult,” Walden said. “I know Steve loves me saying this because he wants to train every Tapit in the world. He did extremely well with Untapable. [Creator] was a little fiery as a 2-year-old.”

Untapable spent the past two summers in the stall once occupied by Rachel Alexandra at the Asmussen shed row at Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track. She recently left the barn for retirement, but don’t think things have gotten any less busy around the stable. There will be a pause between training hours and afternoon racing to celebrate and reflect Friday, but then it’s right back to work for Asmussen, who describes himself as not “even halfway done” with his career.

“If you’re in racing, you’re a dreamer,” he said. “If you’re going to chose to do this every day, you’re a dreamer.”