On Dec. 6, Steve Asmussen surpassed his own record for wins in a season by a North American trainer with his 623rd victory (he now has 632 as of Dec. 14). It is the second year in a row that Asmussen topped 600 wins and the fifth time in the last six years that he will have led the nation in wins. He also has more than $21 million in earnings after banking a record $24 million in 2008 on his way to an Eclipse Award.
There were a couple of short articles when Asmussen broke his own win record again, but in the grand scheme of things, it went largely unnoticed, especially considering that right in front of our eyes the man is dominating the sport in a way we've never seen.
It's kind of amazing when you think about it. After all, he is the only trainer who ranks in the top five all-time in both victories and earnings, might have his third straight Horse of the Year winner next month, and he is only 44. Many more records will fall by the time he is done. Yet, it seems that we know little about him.
Despite all his records and having trained superstars Curlin and Rachel Alexandra over the last two years, Asmussen is not as widely-known by the average fan as say Bob Baffert or D. Wayne Lukas or Nick Zito. That, of course, is because he has not won the Kentucky Derby like those guys, but it's also by design. Asmussen is a quiet, private man. He doesn't like the spotlight and does as few interviews as possible. He certainly doesn't offer up much in the way of opinions. That's the way he wants it.
The other day I had a chance to talk to Asmussen's father, Keith, for a while. Keith Asmussen, of course, taught Steve the horse business back in Texas and still runs a successful training operation in Laredo. Though also a quiet man, Keith is a bit easier to talk to. I thought it might be interesting to see if he would reveal anything about his son--if nothing else to help shed some light on a future Hall of Famer many know little about.
After the interview, let me know your opinions of Steve Asmussen.
JS: Obviously, you must be very proud of Steve and all of his accomplishments. As he keeps setting these win records, what goes through your mind?
KA: I think the record for wins stood at about 370 or so for about 30 years. To think in the last five or six years he has broken it three times in unreal. A friend of ours recently told us to make sure Steve doesn't run any more horses the rest of the year because he'll only make it harder on himself to break the new record again next year (laughs).
JS: What are some of the skills you think enables Steve to have been so successful over the past few years?
KA: I think his mind is very sharp. He keeps on top of things 24/7 and does everything to the (letter). He wants everything to be exact because he knows if something gets out of whack it can be a negative chain reaction for his whole operation.
JS: What were some of the things you instilled in him as a boy growing up in Texas which have enabled him to be such a gifted horseman?
KA: It was really all about him doing everything hands-on. He started from the bottom; mucking stalls, hot walking, galloping. He did it all. He was basically raised at the barn. There was no other way. It was a necessity for us. There were no daycare centers or anything. It was all business at the farm.
JS: As good as Steve has become and as many records as he continues to break, he has not endeared himself to the media as much as some other top trainers. Why do you think that is?
KA: I think he is so wrapped up in his work that he doesn't have time for much of the media stuff.
JS: But even when he does do interviews, he comes off a certain way; negatively to some.
KA: I think some see him as standoffish. He's the type of person who if he doesn't have something to say he is not going to say it. That's just the way he is. But he has so many people to answer to--owners, assistants, agents, and all these other people. He is very busy and long interviews just don't seem to fit his schedule.
JS: Do you ever talk to him about how he could maybe change his public perception?
KA: No. We are very close. We talk all the time, but that never comes up. Personally, I think it's an asset to not reveal too much. The way things are today, a slip of the tongue can really get you in hot water. It's okay to pull back from the media.
JS: What is something about Steve that the general person would only know if they were close to him?
KA: That he is a big-time family man. He's majorly involved with his kids. You rarely see the kids not in a winner's photo during a big race.
JS: Steve is certainly not alone amongst top trainers who have had multiple drug violations. But the fact is that he has had his share of positives, and, fair or unfair, some attribute his success to gaining that edge. What are your opinions on that?
KA: I think that any time somebody is at the top of the heap people will try to bring them down. I know (the multiple violations) effects him personally. It's tough when something like that happens and the press gets a hold of it. Then again, most of the time he is 1,000 miles away from where (the violation) happens. It's hard for him to control. But the media will try to play it up like he was caught in the stall holding a syringe to the horse. Either way, he has to explain it. It's tough.
I know he has taken some steps (to stop it) like putting video cameras in some of his barns and things like that you would have never thought of before.
JS: One of the only things left for Steve to accomplish is winning the Kentucky Derby. Does he talk about how much that would mean to him?
KA: It comes up, but it's not like he dwells on it. If it happens, it happens. It isn't something he worries about. If the right horse comes along at the right time he'll win it.
JS: The joy he must have derived from the Curlin and Rachel Alexandra campaigns must have been very rewarding to him and your family.
KA: It's something you only dream about; you never really think it's going to happen. There has been no end to the joy we've been able to experience with Curlin and Rachel.
JS: How about your training operation in Laredo; is that still going strong, and are you still able to handle all the demands?
KA: We have about 140 horses right now. It's all we've ever known, so we love it. I don't get on as many horses as I used to, but I still get on about 12 to 15 per day.