Updated on 09/17/2011 10:52AM

Young trainers rule the region

Lone Star Park
Cole Norman (left) and Steve Asmussen turned small stables into huge winning machines.

GRAND PRAIRIE, Texas - It's a rare day in the Mid-South when Steve Asmussen or Cole Norman does not win at least one race - and business as usual when they win several.

This part of the country is home to the two young trainers, and over the past five years their stables have grown exponentially, putting them in a position to win title after title in Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas. Last year, Asmussen led the nation in wins for the first time, while Norman ranked third. And so far this year, the two have combined to win all of the major training titles in the Mid-South.

Asmussen picked up top honors at Fair Grounds and Sam Houston Race Park in March, while Norman took down the title at Oaklawn Park in April. Later this month, when the meet at Lone Star Park ends July 13, one of them will win the title. Heading into the races Wednesday night, Norman led the standings by 10 wins over Asmussen - threatening to end Asmussen's four-year run as leading trainer.

Together, Asmussen and Norman have combined to win 152 of the 584 races run this meet at Lone Star. As further evidence of their dominance, the third-leading trainer at the meet, Bret Calhoun, is 36 wins behind Norman.

Racing against Asmussen and Norman - whose rivalry is similar to the days when trainers Hal Bishop and Marion Van Berg dominated the scene in Chicago in the 1950's and 60's - is no picnic for the horsemen based in the Mid-South.

"They've got numbers, and they're shooting them at us," said trainer Andrew Leggio Jr. "They might have a choice of two, three, or four horses for every race in the book. I may have one. It's no big secret. That's their edge. Numbers."

Trainer Chuck Turco has said that for some stables the situation can be likened to that of a local store trying to compete with a Super Wal-Mart.

Asmussen had 168 horses in training and Norman 147 when the two recently sat down for a joint interview at Lone Star.

Asmussen recalled the small stable he operated when he began training in 1986. "My first year, I went 1 for 15 and my earnings were just $2,326," he said. Last year, Asmussen won 407 races from 1,810 starters for stable earnings of $10 million.

Norman's career also has been on a steep upswing. He went out on his own in 1995 and won 11 races from 131 starts for earnings of $146,536. Last year, his stable won 266 of 918 races for earnings of $4.3 million.

A respect for how quickly fortunes can turn in racing keeps both men motivated to work overtime, seven days a week, to manage their far-flung operations.

"Believe me, you don't want to go back to that, and you easily could," said Asmussen of his struggling early days. "If nothing but slow horses are standing in your barn, you're not going to win.

"We're [both] very well aware of the pitfalls of racing. It's an extremely humbling game."

"Here today, gone tomorrow," Norman agreed. "I feel guilty if I don't feel like I'm giving 100 percent. Right now is the time to make money and save it for the future in case I don't have these numbers. I can survive."

Asmussen, 37, was born in Gettysburg, S.D., and he learned the ins and outs of racing from his parents, Keith and Marilyn Asmussen. His older brother, retired jockey Cash Asmussen, was an Eclipse Award-winning apprentice who became a five-time champion rider in France.

These days, the Asmussen family owns and operates a training center in Laredo, Texas. Steve and his wife, Julie, also have a home in Arlington, Texas, a few miles from Lone Star.

"As far as my working, it's not a fraction of what I watched my parents do when I was young," said Asmussen. "The ma and pa stables of 20 years ago, they did everything. She trained and he rode, and me and Cash were grooming. The skeleton crew."

Norman, 34, also watched his parents work tirelessly for their racing stable. His father, the late Gene Norman, was one of the most respected horsemen in the region. His mother, Revella, kept the books, which is the same setup Norman now follows with his wife, Tamara. The couple lives in Haughton, La., a few miles from Louisiana Downs.

"My brother and I, it seems like we were in diapers when we started cleaning stalls," said Norman, who was born in Lafayette, La. "This is the only job I've ever had."

Since going out on their own, both Asmussen and Norman have built small stables into empires. The dominance that has ensued draws criticism from some horsemen, but most trainers agree that Asmussen and Norman are simply capitalizing on free enterprise.

"You can't knock them because they're both winners," said trainer Troy Young. "They can get aggressive in certain spots and run these horses where it makes it hard on us, but to have that big of a stable and do as well as they do, I take my hat off to them.

"I don't think I'd want the numbers," Young added. "I don't think I'd sleep at night. I think Cole told me a while ago that he had 59 different owners."

Asmussen learned early in his career that if he wanted big things to happen in his stable, he had to take the initiative.

"I remember we had a very good year with Valid Expectations, Little Sister, and Valid Bonnet, and I never thought there would be another poor day," he said.

"But the following year, we actually didn't do as well, because I kind of sat back and expected people to take notice and send me horses. That just didn't happen. I had to recruit young horses, and that really taught me a lesson.

"I'm not going to have good 3-year-olds if I don't have good 2-year-olds."

Since then, Asmussen has developed a reputation for training young horses, and he noted that most of the money earned in his stable came with 2-year-olds that developed at 3 - horses such as Fifty Stars, winner of the Grade 2, $750,000 Louisiana Derby, and Private Emblem, winner of the Grade 2, $500,000 Arkansas Derby.

Norman has built his stable differently. "We do a lot of claiming, and that's really where I got my start," Norman said. "I think we've always been known as a claiming barn.

"This year is probably our best year as far as quality of horses, being able to run in different stakes in a variety of categories - turf, dirt, short, long."

Norman's top horses include multiple-stakes-winning sprinter Beau's Town. Unlike Asmussen, who has divisions at Churchill Downs and Arlington Park as well as Louisiana Downs and Lone Star, Norman tends to keep all of his horses in either Texas or Louisiana when not racing at Oaklawn Park.

Last year, Norman won with 29 percent of his starters, the highest win percentage in the country among the nation's leading trainers. Part of the reason for that success was Norman's shrewd placement of horses in specific races, a lesson both he and Asmussen said can be learned from operating a large stable.

"The numbers allow me to be very sure in my own mind where a horse needs to run," said Asmussen. "If that horse needed to run for more money, I'd feel confident that I'd have something that can beat him at that level, or they would switch positions."

"Like Steve said, 'You know where they need to be, and you put them where they need to be,'" said Norman.

It's that kind of confident management, coupled with the size of their respective stables, that suggest Asmussen and Norman will continue to rule this region for a long time to come.


Fair Grounds

Louisiana Downs

Lone Star
2001Asmussen 90*


* denotes meet-record for wins


2003: By wins*
1Scott Lake236
2Steve Asmussen219
3Cole Norman160

* (through Sunday)

2002: By wins
1Steve Asmussen407
2Scott Lake399
3Cole Norman266