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Tiny details pave way to big goals
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Steve Asmussen was standing under the shed row of his barn at Churchill Downs having a casual conversation the other morning when he suddenly grew distracted by something seemingly imperceptible.
As horses filed past while cooling out following their exercise, the colt Reporting for Duty kept trying to surreptitiously nip at every horse who went by his corner stall. Asmussen put a bucket filled with dirty towels in front of Reporting for Duty's stall, hoping that would keep the horses and hotwalkers gliding past the colt far enough away. It did not work. So, at the end of the morning, when quiet had returned to one of the busiest barns at Churchill Downs, Asmussen moved Reporting for Duty to a stall in the middle of the shed row, where the colt dutifully minded his manners.
Little escapes Asmussen's attention. No matter what he is doing, Asmussen, 41, always has an eye on his horses. With 200 in his care at several racetracks around the country, his workload is enormous. His single-minded focus was imprinted by his parents, Keith and Marilyn, successful horse trainers in their own right. That drive has propelled Asmussen - the younger brother of former jockey Cash Asmussen - to set a single-season record for victories by a trainer, with 555 in 2004. And now it has put him in position to run at least two and as many as three horses in Saturday's 133rd Kentucky Derby - the unbeaten Curlin, Zanjero, and possibly Reporting for Duty.
But the same drive that brought him to this point has also taken Asmussen away from home far more than he finds ideal. He admits that he eats too many meals by himself from fast-food drive-through windows. And he has few close friends on the racetrack, not being one to socialize with jockeys or rival trainers.
"That's just me," he said.
Asmussen, in contrast to the horses he is preparing for the Derby, races with blinkers on.
As such, he is enthralled by a challenge. When Asmussen won 452 races in 2003, he set about the following year to break Jack Van Berg's long-standing record of 496 wins, which had stood since 1976.
"At the end of the year, we were about 50 wins away," Asmussen said. "We thought we could come up from 452, that 497 was attainable. Once you get that, the emphasis on trying to beat yourself doesn't give you the same feeling."
That many wins, though, brought additional clients to Asmussen, some with very deep pockets.
"I think one fed the other," Asmussen said. "We're hoping to continually go in that direction, to get better, higher-quality horses."
He smiled. "Who do I want to be when I grow up? Todd Pletcher."
Pletcher is the standard-bearer for large training operations. He has won three straight Eclipse Awards as champion trainer and is planning on running five horses in this year's Derby.
Asmussen is creeping closer. The private acquisition of Curlin was a benchmark in his ascension. There were several owners and trainers hot on the heels of Curlin after his dazzling debut victory at Gulfstream Park on Feb. 3 for trainer Helen Pitts, but it was clients of Asmussen's who got the deal done and sent him the colt.
"It was a unique opportunity for a unique horse," Asmussen said. "I'm extremely fortunate to make a living in a game where some of the wealthiest people in the world put up money to participate."
Since then, Curlin has won two races for Asmussen, the Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.
Now, with Curlin, Asmussen faces the next great training challenge of his career. Curlin did not race at 2; no horse has won the Derby without racing at 2 since Apollo in 1882. Curlin has made just three starts; no horse with three or fewer starts has won the Derby since Regret in 1915. In the past 30 years, six horses have entered the Derby facing both those significant hurdles. The best any of them could do was a sixth-place finish by Showing Up last year.
In that 30-year period, of the nine horses who had raced in the Derby with three or fewer starts, two finished sixth, and the rest finished no better than 12th. Of the 25 horses who raced in the Derby without having started at age 2, only one has finished in the money; 13 have finished 10th or worse.
"The positives are his obvious ability," Asmussen said of Curlin. "He thinks he's going to win, and he does appear to be moving forward. I don't know if it's a positive that we don't know what he can't do. We can kind of see that in everyone else. I don't think anyone thinks they've seen his best race. The question with Curlin is - how good is he? He appears capable of more.
"I think Street Sense," Asmussen said, referring to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, "will be the favorite. There's too many questions regarding my horse - mainly, who the hell did he ever beat?"
Curlin made his first start for the Midnight Cry Stable of attorneys William Gallion and Shirley Cunningham. Asmussen was at Gulfstream that day, stabled in the same barn as Pitts.
"I had a horse in the race after Curlin ran. We were in the holding barn, and he comes by eight in front, runs seven-eighths in 1:22 and change, and he comes back to the barn like he never ran," Asmussen said. "He didn't get as much attention as he might have because Invasor and Nobiz Like Shobiz won stakes on the same card."
There were enough people who noticed, though. Asmussen was in Ocala, Fla., the next day for a 2-year-old sale and conferred with bloodstock agent John Moynihan, who set about trying to acquire Curlin. Within days, Midnight Cry had sold 80 percent of Curlin to Jess Jackson's Stonestreet Stable, Satish Sanan's Padua Stables, and George Bolton. Jackson now owns 31 percent of Curlin, Sanan 29 percent, and Bolton 20 percent.
Under an agreement worked out by the owners, Curlin races in different silks each time. In the Rebel, it was in Jackson's colors. In the Arkansas Derby, jockey Robby Albarado wore Sanan's silks. It is Bolton's turn for the Derby.
After his maiden win, Curlin initially trained with Asmussen at Fair Grounds, then went to Oaklawn for the Rebel, was sent to Keeneland to prepare for the Arkansas Derby, returned to Oaklawn, came back to Keeneland for eight days, then was sent here to Churchill Downs for his final Derby preparation. At every stop, Curlin was in a barn full of Asmussen horses who could train with him, reflecting the scope of Asmussen's business.
"It's a huge advantage," Asmussen said. "We have so many tools to work with. Curlin, every week we had a measuring stick for him. He had a full set of equipment to work out with. We're Gold's Gym! All these things make a transition smoother. It works on all levels."
Asmussen has assistants at each outpost, but he relies most on Scott Blasi, who was at Fair Grounds this winter and is now at Churchill.
"How long have you been part of this zoo?" Asmussen yelled to Blasi, 33, who has been with Asmussen for 11 1/2 years.
"Back when we had 36 head, all at Remington Park, and me and him were still galloping horses," Blasi said.
Asmussen and Blasi are similar in many ways, both in training philosophy and personality. Both are smart, have a good sense of humor, but can flash anger when their employees don't share their drive and attention to detail.
Blasi's importance to Asmussen was never more apparent than from last July through January, when Asmussen was suspended for six months for a positive drug test on a horse under his care in Louisiana.
While Asmussen was away, the barn hummed along with Blasi as the trainer.
"Being around him for so long, we have a good understanding of each other and what we want done," Blasi said. "Knowing what's expected is how our relationship has been built over the years. I've been with him since I was 21. All our ideas on how to do things have developed over that time - how we do things and why we do things, finding things that work well. I think we've come up with some pretty good ideas over the years. And there's some stuff where you go, 'We won't do that again.' You live and learn.
"We don't second-guess the other, because I think he's right. He's a highly intelligent person with a memory that's unbelievable. He could probably run a major corporation anywhere in America if he wasn't so good at this. If he was interested in something else, he'd be just as successful. Steve is very organized. We had a system put in place, which is why it worked out so well."
Asmussen was suspended by the Louisiana Racing Commission after a horse in his care, No End in Sight, tested positive for the Class 2 drug mepivicaine, a local anesthetic, after an eighth-place finish in a March 24, 2006 race at Evangeline Downs. Neither Asmussen nor Blasi was at Evangeline that day.
"I didn't give the horse 750 times the legal limit," Asmussen said, his voice a mix of exasperation and frustration. "But I believe in the trainer responsibility rule, and my name was down on the sheet. I don't think the six months was justified, but I was accountable. That being said, spending six months with Julie and the boys was irreplaceable.
"It was a blessing. How can you regret spending six months with your family? Everything happens for a reason, and I don't think you're always supposed to understand why, either."
Asmussen's home is in Arlington, Texas, an easy drive from two of his hubs - Lone Star Park and DFW airport. He and Julie, who have been married for 10 years, have three sons - Keith, 8; Darren, 6; and Erik, 4.
"The older boys, things have always been the same with them," Asmussen said. "But Erik, the time off got me closer with him, on the level with the others. I've traveled so much since Erik was born, I think he was wondering who I was."
On Friday, Asmussen flew from Louisville back to Texas to attend Keith's first communion. Asmussen was to return to Louisville by Sunday afternoon and has scheduled final Derby workouts for Curlin and Zanjero for Monday. And just days before the Derby, his family will head to Kentucky.
"They're coming to the Derby," Asmussen said. "I can't tell you how awesome that is."