by Teresa Genaro
Steve Asmussen has accomplished enough as a trainer to have been inducted into the U.S. Thoroughbred Racing Hall of Fame. He’s won two Eclipse Awards, more than 7,700 races, over $261 million in purse earnings, two Preaknesses, a Belmont, and five Breeders’ Cup races. He’s trained two Horses of the Year.
But he doesn’t give himself much credit for picking out horses at auction, even when they become graded stakes winners.
Three-year-old Vertical Oak became a dual graded stakes winner on Sunday afternoon at Saratoga when she confirmed her affinity for the mud, winning the Prioress Stakes (G2) by 5 1/4 lengths over a sodden racetrack. In the saddle on the daughter of Giant Oak for the first time, John Velazquez took the filly to the front and won with such ease that his silks were absolutely spotless when he came back to get his picture taken.
“Steve told me she loves the slop and to let her do her thing,” Velazquez said. “I came out running to make sure I got the position I wanted.”
“She’s been put in that position before and handled it nicely,” Asmussen said of her pacesetting run.
Vertical Oak won the Goldfinch Stakes at Prairie Meadows by 7 3/4 lengths on a sloppy track in April.
“That race was on a track similar to today’s and visually impressive,” Asmussen said, “but we weren’t sure who she beat. Without a doubt, she relishes the slop. This confirms that.”
Vertical Oak is out of the Pollard’s Vision mare Vertical Vision, an Oklahoma-bred that Asmussen selected at a Fasig-Tipton yearling sale in 2008 for Heiligbrodt Racing Stable, paying $17,500 for her. She won two stakes races for them and finished in the top three 13 times in 20 races, earning almost $203,000.
Asmussen bought Vertical Vision again in 2011, this time at the Heiligbrodt dispersal sale, this time paying $77,000 for her for Millennium Farms, who raced her once before retiring her. And when Vertical Vision’s second registered foal went to auction, Asmussen bought her for J. Kirk and Judy Robison for $20,000. They named her Vertical Oak and she’s now earned more than $444,200 for them.
“I have so much to do with her it’s unbelievable,” said Asmussen in the wet winner’s circle after the Prioress, visibly pleased at relating his involvement with the filly’s family. But lest one think him immodestly boasting of his connection, he hastened to add, “She’s my one success story at auction.”
Vertical Oak broke her maiden at Saratoga last summer at first asking, winning by 6 3/4 lengths. Well-traveled, she’s run at six racetracks, winning at four them, and she’s carried seven different jockeys.
“She’s a very seasoned filly,” Asmussen said. “She broke her maiden here and she likes it here in Saratoga. The cool mornings have kept her sharp enough (to run in both the Test on August 5 and the Prioress).”
His hair damp from the relentless rain, Asmussen looked as pleased to win the Prioress as he did the day before when Gun Runner won the Whitney Stakes (G1), his pleasure heightened by his long association with the filly’s family.
“Her mother was a very competitive filly for us, and fun to run,” he said. “This filly is making her mother proud.”