02/10/2011 5:54PM

Pressure to win Kentucky Derby turns to Asmussen

Barbara D. Livingston
Steve Asmussen will try again to win his first Kentucky Derby.

Todd Pletcher and Steve Asmussen were born into racing, being the sons of trainers who plied their trade largely in the Southwest. Both operate large stables that encompass several tracks and scores of horses. Both have won multiple Eclipse Awards as champion trainer, both have trained Eclipse Award-winning horses, and both have won Breeders’ Cup races. Both have won Triple Crown races. And, until last year, both had never won the Kentucky Derby.

That all changed at Churchill Downs on May 1, when Super Saver brought Pletcher a Derby victory, a win that seemed to satisfy Pletcher watchers more than Pletcher himself.

“It was one of those things I was happy to put behind me,” Pletcher said this week.

Now, because of the sheer size and success of his stable, it is Asmussen who steps to the fore as the trainer who will be the most watched in his quest to win the Derby, which this year will be May 7.

It was an unfair yoke to put around Pletcher, and so it will be with Asmussen. The Pletcher scorecard was particularly twisted. Though he ran 24 horses in Derbies before finally winning, it was only in nine races, and two of his horses − Invisible Ink and Bluegrass Cat − ran second at long odds. Asmussen, who has a more varying degree of stock, has had fewer Derby starters, nine, in six races. He came closest with Curlin, who ran third in his fourth lifetime start in 2007. Curlin did pretty well after that, being named Horse of the Year that year and in 2008.

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The expectations for both men are outsized because they are victims of their rapid success. Though they have done well for years, it is worth reminding that both are quite young. Pletcher is 43, Asmussen 45. Both are extremely analytical, exceedingly organized, and highly intelligent. As such, they are realistic about what a crapshoot the Derby has become, what with 20 horses almost a given every year.

“It’s kind of like being a lottery winner. Do you feel smart winning the lottery?” Asmussen said. “All we can do is prepare our horses so they come back as good as they went in. But you’d better be lucky while that is happening. Who’s going to outrun who? That’s a lovely discussion. But it ain’t the Derby.

“The Derby has become more of an event than a race, more than any race I can think of,” Asmussen said.

As for winning it, Asmussen joked, “I’m not an authority on the subject.”

“I’m in the middle of this,” he said. “Everybody tries to define people when they’re in the middle of it. Look at D. Wayne Lukas. Before Winning Colors, they said he couldn’t win the Derby. Then he became the Derby-winning trainer. We have to remember that I haven’t run in the Derby. It’s not me who would win the Derby. It isn’t the people. It’s the horses.”


Asmussen’s best chance this year appears to be Tapizar, who won last month’s Sham Stakes at Santa Anita and will take his next step toward the Kentucky Derby on Saturday in the Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. Tapizar is the fourth choice on the inaugural top 20 of Daily Racing Form’s Derby Watch, being pegged at 10-1 by Mike Watchmaker, DRF’s national handicapper. Asmussen’s other promising 3-year-olds include Astrology and Wine Police.

Topping the Derby Watch list is Uncle Mo, who won all three of his starts last year, including the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and was named the Eclipse Award-winning 2-year-old male. He also happens to be trained by Pletcher. Asked if he will feel less pressure this year now that he’s got a Derby trophy, Pletcher said, “Not if Uncle Mo is 5 for 5 and 3-5 on the board.”

For Pletcher, though, there undoubtedly will be a different flavor leading up to this year’s Derby. Instead of a focus on when, oh, when will he finally win, it will be whether he can do it in consecutive years.

“It’s hard to describe the moment last year,” Pletcher said. “For me, it seemed that people thought it was sort of expected to happen, that it was a big deal that it hadn’t. It’s more significant upon reflection than it was in the moment. It’s a race you dream of winning your whole life, but I didn’t think it had to happen.

“It’s a tremendous feeling at the time, but minutes after the race is over, you’re looking at the next step, years, when he lost, Pletcher said the Derby should not define one’s career. And he maintained that stance last year after winning it.

“I was very sincere when I said afterward that I was no better after Super Saver won than I had been 2 1/2 minutes prior to the race,” Pletcher said. “I did as good a job with a number of others that didn’t win, maybe better.

“But,” he said, “I am glad it’s behind me.”

Velazquez gets To Honor and Serve

John Velazquez, who rode To Honor and Serve to a victory in last year’s Remsen Stakes, will be aboard the top Kentucky Derby prospect when he makes his 3-year-old debut later this month in the $400,000 Fountain of Youth Stakes at Gulfstream Park, trainer Bill Mott informed on Thursday.

Velazquez is also the regular rider of Uncle Mo, last year’s champion 2-year-old male.

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