Racing is a family sport; always has been. The success of many of the industry’s top Thoroughbred breeding farms has been built by handing the baton from one generation to the next. Fans often get into the sport not by randomly stumbling into a racetrack one day, but by having their parents or a family member guide them through the gates for the first time.
The backside of the racetrack is no different. A perfect example of the links in the multi-generational chain is the Asmussen family. Keith and Marilyn Asmussen raised two sons while racing, training, and riding horses at the bush tracks and bull rings of the American West. The boys, Cash and Steve, both advanced from grooming horses such as 1978 Rainbow Futurity winner Vespero (trained by Marilyn and ridden by Keith) to earn Eclipse Awards—the apex of the sport—while the younger Steve takes his spot in racing’s Hall of Fame Aug. 12.
Asmussen has won 7,300-plus races as a trainer—that’s second all-time, by the way—with a mix of classic wins, Horse of the Year titles, and controversy. His formula is similar to those who already have Hall of Fame plaques: a winning combination of drive, horsemanship, and opportunity. In Asmussen’s case there’s a little something extra.
“Putting me in the Hall of Fame is putting my whole family in the Hall of Fame,” the 50-year-old trainer said after training hours a week out from his induction. “Everything that I’ve done has simply been an extension of them. They are still a huge part of my stable, and that is how it was when I was growing up.
“It’s a unique opportunity to grow up in a racing stable with my mother training and my dad riding and one extremely talented older brother,” he said.
His brother, Cash, was the Eclipse Award-winning apprentice in 1979. Weight issues later pushed him to Europe where he became a top rider in France as the contract rider for Stavros Niarchos. Steve tried to follow in his footsteps, but he quickly outgrew the silks. However, he never outgrew his desire to work with horses.
Steve turned to training and soon got an opportunity to take a string to the new Birmingham Race Course in Alabama in 1987. He has proved to have much more staying power than the track that filed for bankruptcy the following year.
“It’s a competitive thing,” his mother said from the family’s El Primero Horse Center near Laredo, Texas. “He wants to do everything better than anybody else can do it. I would like to say that we (Keith) both contributed to their work ethic and to do the best possible job in whatever they did. My parents used to tell me, ‘If you do something, do it to the best of your ability and be proud enough of the job you did to sign your name to it.’ ”
“He just kept working,” his father echoed. “He’s always been all business. His idea has always been to win; he’s been that way since he was itty-bitty.”
Regardless of size, Steve Asmussen has cast a long shadow while training Thoroughbreds to win three consecutive Horse of the Year titles, three classics, and five Breeders’ Cup races.
“You just don’t realize when you’re 10, 15, 20 how fortunate you are as you do when you’re 50 and you get the chance to look back and see what an amazing opportunity you’ve always had,” Steve said. “Racing is a unique opportunity for a family to work together for a common goal. Looking back at it, what a crazy-good opportunity it was to spend time with my family. The success we did have…it’s hard to explain how much better it feels when you are able to do it together.”
It’s not an easy trip from Laredo to Saratoga Springs, N.Y., but the Asmussen clan will be there…and they’ll all be together.