Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen surpassed the late Dale Baird’s all-time North American win record at Saratoga on Saturday, by sending out the long-anticipated number 9,446. The milestone came courtesy of aptly named juvenile Stellar Tap, who dominated his career debut in the 5TH race beneath Asmussen’s go-to rider, Ricardo Santana.
Stellar Tap, a son of Tapit, is co-owned by L and N Racing and Winchell Thoroughbreds. Flashing speed to argue the pace in the seven-furlong maiden, the 5.50-1 chance put away his competition and opened up with authority.
A $250,000 Keeneland September yearling purchase, Stellar Tap received his early education at the Texas training facility operated by Asmussen’s parents, Keith and Marilyn.
“Have the whole family here – God is great!” Asmussen beamed in the postrace interview with Maggie Wolfendale on America’s Day at the Races on Fox Sports 2.
Asmussen is quick to credit the foundation he received from a legendary racing family, from his parents to brother Cash. He reiterated that in a recent interview with Jennie Rees.
“I was just extremely fortunate in the situation that I grew up in, of knowing and believing and being correct about what great horsemen my parents were. (Having) one older brother (Cash), out of south Texas or not, who won the Eclipse and was leading rider in New York and five-time Golden Whip award winner (in France).
“I think the saying is extremely (apt): If you do what you love, you don’t work a day in your life. We’re unbelievably blessed to be given the opportunity to be in horse racing.”
Asmussen has had the quality to go along with the sheer quantity of winners. His pupils include several champions, led by fellow Hall of Famers Rachel Alexandra and Curlin as well as a third Horse of the Year in Gun Runner. But Asmussen wasn’t using that as a point of comparison with Baird, who racked up his extraordinary numbers in West Virginia.
“Dale Baird — a tremendous feat, no matter where you win races. If you’re in horse racing, you know how hard it is to win a horse race at any level. I think it’s extremely significant to hopefully one day end up being the all-time winningest horse trainer.”
Now Asmussen is chasing the world record held by the prolific Peruvian Juan Suarez Villarroel, whose tally was up to 9,882 through Aug. 6, according to the stats on Pagina de Turf.
“He’s like 300 ahead of me, and he’s still winning a couple hundred a year,” Asmussen said.
But first Asmussen wants to win the one American classic that’s eluded him so far – the Kentucky Derby (G1).
“Winning the Derby is my next goal. But the beautiful thing about this is we feel we’re in the middle of it. It’s never been better. The stable is very strong right now. We have some outstanding prospects that should continue to win.
“We’re blessed with opportunity. We train for the greatest owners in the country and we have a lot of chances to win races. I’m not surprised by the races we win; I’m kind of surprised by the races we get beat in. I think getting to a significant milestone like this allows you an opportunity to look back and reflect on the ground you have covered.”
In that spirit, here’s a highlight reel of Asmussen’s brightest stars.
Purchased privately and transferred to Asmussen after her record-setting Kentucky Oaks (G1) conquest in 2009, Rachel Alexandra compiled an historic series of victories over males. For her new owners Stonestreet Stables and Harold McCormick, she beat Kentucky Derby upsetter Mine That Bird in the Preakness (G1), becoming the first female to win the middle jewel in 85 years. In the Haskell (G1), Rachel Alexandra extended her supremacy over Summer Bird, the Belmont S. (G1) winner and eventual champion three-year-old male. Then she defeated older males in an epic Woodward S. (G1) at Saratoga, clinching Horse of the Year honors. Track announcer Tom Durkin captured the moment for the ages:
A two-time Horse of the Year in 2007-08, Curlin for a time reigned as North America’s richest-ever Thoroughbred with earnings exceeding $10.5 million. The robust chestnut gave Asmussen his first victory in a Triple Crown race in the 2007 Preakness, as well as his first Breeders’ Cup trophy in that fall’s Classic (G1). Curlin’s Hall of Fame resume also features the Dubai World Cup (G1) and repeat scores in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1). Campaigned by a partnership for most of his career, Curlin is most often identified with the Stonestreet silks.
Promising at two and accomplished at three, Winchell Thoroughbreds and Three Chimneys Farm’s Gun Runner reached his peak as a four-year-old to take the 2017 Horse of the Year title. His skein of five Grade 1 wins included the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the 2018 Pegasus World Cup (G1), his last hurrah before stud. His first crop is off to a blazing start this summer with several winners already, highlighted by fellow Asmussen trainee Echo Zulu.
The brilliant one-turn artist Mitole was talented enough to be a Horse of the Year in an ordinary season. But in the balloting for 2019, the Heiligbrodt colorbearer lost out thanks to a unique sweep by turfiste Bricks and Mortar. Mitole was effective from six furlongs up to a mile, as evidenced by his four Grade 1s across that spectrum including the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) and Metropolitan H. (G1).
Bloom Racing Stable et al’s Midnight Bisou was also in the 2019 Horse of the Year discussion as she compiled a seven-race winning streak versus fellow females. Although those hopes ended with a second in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1), she had done more than enough to wrap up the Eclipse Award as champion older dirt female. Midnight Bisou proved herself in world-class male company next time in the inaugural Saudi Cup, when runner-up to champion Maximum Security and ahead of Godolphin’s globetrotting celebrity Benbatl. Her stakes-record Ogden Phipps (G1) was one of her easier wins during her championship campaign.
Beaten just once in a brief six-race career, Majesticperfection could have been a champion if he’d made it to the 2010 Breeders’ Cup. The Padua Stables runner burst onto the sprint scene with a track record-setting Iowa Sprint H. and followed up at the top level in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt H. (G1) at Saratoga. Unfortunately, Majesticperfection never ran again, but he received a compliment when Vanderbilt runner-up Big Drama took the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Last year, history repeated itself when Asmussen’s Volatile likewise won the Vanderbilt, had to be retired due to injury, and saw his beaten foe Whitmore go on to Breeders’ Cup glory in his absence.
The what-if vibe is even stronger with Kantharos, who sustained a career-ending injury as an undefeated juvenile. The Stonestreet colt dominated his three starts in that same summer of 2010, by a combined margin of 28 1/2 lengths. Kantharos’ record at stud only reinforces the sense of unfulfilled potential, since he’s sired such outstanding sprinters as X Y Jet and World of Trouble.
Just the second (of three) fillies to turn the Kentucky Oaks/Breeders’ Cup Distaff double, Untapable finds herself in the company of Ashado (2004) and Monomoy Girl (2018) – one Hall of Famer and another surely on the way to induction. Untapable accordingly was honored as the champion three-year-old filly of 2014, when she won all six starts in her own division, and suffered her lone sophomore loss versus the boys in the Haskell. That season was her finest hour, but the Winchell homebred was also a major winner at both two and four.
My Miss Aurelia
The unbeaten champion two-year-old filly of 2011, My Miss Aurelia was diagnosed with a shin injury after her Eclipse-clinching win in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1). The Stonestreet homebred was not ready to return until the second half of her sophomore campaign, or else she might have padded her resume even more. Still, My Miss Aurelia prevailed over that year’s divisional champion, Questing, in a hard-fought Cotillion (G1) and beat all but Hall of Famer Royal Delta in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
Heroine of the 2003 Test S. (G1) in a stakes-record 1:20.83 – a time matched by champion Gamine last summer – Lady Tak came back to Saratoga to add the Ballerina H. (G1) in 2004. The Heiligbrodts’ racy, athletic chestnut was best around one turn, but her class carried her to victory in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) and seconds in such top-level routes as the Ashland (G1) and Gazelle H. (G1). Lady Tak was also just edged by champion Bird Town in the Acorn (G1) over a one-turn mile.
This highlight reel could easily have included others, or gone on twice as long. Such is the depth of the Asmussen honor roll that these major winners are relegated to the honorable mention category: Creator, the 2016 Belmont S. (G1) winner; champion Kodiak Kowboy, who spent nearly his whole career with Larry Jones but won Grade 1s in both starts for Asmussen; Volatile, discussed above in the context of Majesticperfection; a pair of Breeders’ Cup heroes in Regally Ready (2011 Turf Sprint [G2]) and Tapizar (2012 Dirt Mile [G1]); Haynesfield, victor of the 2010 Jockey Club Gold Cup over champion Blame; 2005 Kentucky Oaks queen Summerly; and current Grade 1 performers Jackie’s Warrior (by Asmussen’s brilliant Maclean’s Music) and Silver State, who will try to achieve a legacy-making victory later Saturday in the Whitney (G1).
But no discussion of Asmussen celebrities is complete without a special commendation for Valid Expectations. The first to put his up-and-coming young trainer on the national radar, the Ackerley Brothers Farm runner captured seven stakes including the 1996 Derby Trial (G3). Valid Expectations, a perennial top sire in the Lone Star State, was himself enshrined in the Texas Horse Racing Hall of Fame.
Asmussen has remembered Valid Expectations’ role in his ascent to the top.
“Our first stakes win was here with Valid Expectations (in the 1995 Old Hickory),” Asmussen noted when notching his 100th Fair Grounds stakes victory last December. “He was a very special horse to the barn, and his win here in the Sugar Bowl on New Year’s Eve in 1995 put us over a million in earnings for the first time ever. Fair Grounds has been extremely important in the development of the barn.”