03/14/2013 12:15PM

Q&A: Steve Asmussen talks Kentucky Derby, records, and more

Barbara D. Livingston

The trainer of the Horse of the Year for three straight years − Curlin in 2007-08 and Rachel Alexandra in 2009 − Asmussen is on pace to soon pass Jack Van Berg as the second-winningest trainer in North American racing history. For years, he has maintained several strings at once, with his best horses typically stabled at Churchill Downs in the spring and fall, Saratoga in the summer, and Fair Grounds and Santa Anita in the winter. He began training in 1986 after a few years as a jockey and won the Eclipse Award as top trainer in 2008 and 2009. He has led all trainers in annual wins seven times and holds the all-time record for wins in a year (650 in 2009), and his stable earnings are more than $202 million. His older brother, Cash, is now a Texas-based trainer who won the 1979 Eclipse Award for top apprentice and was a champion jockey in Europe. Asmussen spoke recently by phone from his family home in suburban Dallas.

Age: 47

Residence: Arlington, Texas

Family: wife, Julie; sons Keith (14), Darren (12), Erik (10).

When you were riding at age 16, did you ever imagine you would attain the kind of success you’ve enjoyed in racing? Being Cash’s little brother, I thought I’d have more success as a jockey. So I guess it was a blessing that I got too big to ride and turned to training.

You’ve won the Preakness twice and the Breeders’ Cup Classic once. Surely, the Kentucky Derby is No. 1 on your career bucket list: The Kentucky Derby is the pinnacle of American racing. I feel the same way that many people do. The best we’ve done (from 12 starters) so far is a second with Nehro (in 2011) and a third with Curlin (in 2007). We’re extremely light on 3-year-olds this year, but we’re definitely in for the long haul. Maybe there’s a Derby winner in our future, but obviously, there are no guarantees.

You’re on a plane a lot going from stable to stable and to and from your family in Dallas. If you ever retire from training, you could probably be an airline consultant: I don’t think I’d have a lot of positive feedback for them. I think it was two years ago I was trying to get home for Easter and flew out of Keeneland on opening weekend. We flew to Chicago and got delayed there forever. Then coming into Dallas we attempted to land about three or four times, and it was unbelievably scary. We finally ditched that and landed in Austin, and I rented a car and got home at 10 in the morning. That was by far the scariest flight I’ve ever been on. I was deathly afraid, I’m telling you.

What does your cell phone bill look like? I don’t know. My wife takes care of all the bills and finances.

At any given time, about how many active runners are in your care? How do you keep up? We’ve got like 125 right now. We were up to like 350 head in 2009. My assistants and I communicate all the time. We all work together real well.

You’ve often credited your family (including parents Keith and Marilyn) and your staff as being critical to your success: They’re more than critical. I feel like I’m just one of the many working parts in a successful business. It all comes together because of everyone who contributes.

Tell us briefly about your current “big horses”: My Miss Aurelia (Eclipse winner for top 2-year-old filly of 2011) is a definite champion and has an immense amount of talent. Nehro (now 5) should run pretty soon; he just had his sixth workout at Fair Grounds since coming back. And we’re really excited about the year we could possibly have with Teen Pauline, the 3-year-old filly of Stonestreet’s.

What do you think is the perception of Steve Asmussen as a person? I enjoy winning. That’s why I get up in the morning. The goal is today. The mantra is we’ll be fine as long as the next one wins.

With more than 30,000 starters, you’ve had a handful of medication positives, including one in 2006 that resulted in a six-month suspension. Do you think this has contributed to you not being selected for the Hall of Fame’s final ballot the last three years? Obviously, they don’t feel that I am worthy. My record is well-documented. The Hall of Fame has given me more time (to wait) than the time I served (six months). The people who know me know better. The people who don’t, you can’t argue with.

The late Dale Baird had 9,445 wins. When you pass Jack Van Berg you’ll have about 6,420. Have you made it a goal to surpass Baird’s record? I think our goals stay the same all the time. You want to be intelligent in your decisions in getting the most out of horses and spotting them where they can be most effective. We’ve been extremely fortunate to have had the kind of success we’ve had in the past. Passing (King) Leatherbury for third (last year) and being in the range of Jack, that’s all been great to share with my assistants and Julie and the boys. But I really don’t know if I’m in the range of Dale Baird; that might be stretching it. I really love being in the middle of all this at 47, but I don’t know if I’d feel that way when I’m like 77 or whatever.

The biggest thrill in your career? It was really an emotional moment for me when they put Curlin’s number up in the Preakness. The exact moment that happened, that’s probably number one.

Do you think you’ll die with your boots on as they say? Or do you foresee saying one day, “I’m done”? I love being around the horses. I’m from a long line of animal lovers. Right now, I’m just very blessed with the help of my parents and Julie and the boys and my staff to do what I love and to have the support that I do. It’s hard for me to say right now what might happen down the road.