By Dick Jerardi
It was some 28 hours from mid-morning Friday at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion to mid-afternoon Saturday across Union Ave. at the old Saratoga Race Course.
First, it was the double Hall of Fame class being inducted Friday and then Steve Asmussen breaking Dale Baird’s North American wins record for trainers on Saturday.
It was two stellar Hall of Fame classes, led by trainers Todd Pletcher and Mark Casse, 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan. Nothing against any of the inductees, all of whom were deserving, but Asmussen’s 9,446th win was a singular achievement. And now that he holds the record, there is every chance he will hold it forever, just as Russell Baze (12,842 wins) is likely to hold the jockeys’ record.
Consider that Asmussen, who typically wins 400 races per year (with a record best of 650 in 2009), is just 55-years-old. If he wins 400 each of the next 10 years, that puts him beyond 13,000. Jerry Hollendofer is currently third with 7,695 wins. He isn’t catching Asmussen. The late Jack Van Berg had 6,523 wins. King T. Leatherbury has 6,507, but has just a few horses. Parx Hall of Famer Scott Lake has 6,195 wins. He should be fourth someday and possibly third, an incredible achievement. But he isn’t catching Asmussen. Nobody is.
“For it to unfold and happen on Whitney Day at Saratoga with a 2-year-old that came through mom and dad’s program in Laredo (Texas) owned by the Winchells…’’ Asmussen said on the FS2 show from Saratoga.
The record win came with first-timer Stellar Tap, a son of Tapit. It was Saratoga’s fifth race and it wasn’t close.
“We’re so blessed to be in horse racing,’’ Asmussen said. “The amazing horses that we’ve had and everything that we’ve learned from every single one of them, they’ve made the Asmussen family possible…It’s amazing what a horse can do to make you feel good about yourself.’’
Asmussen is going to keep improving the record because he has strings in Texas, Louisiana, Kentucky, Oklahoma, New Jersey, and New York. Saturday, he had a horse in a $5,000 claimer at Louisiana Downs and the Grade I Whitney at Saratoga. And that is what makes his stable unique. He wins at the lowest levels of the sport and the highest.
He has trained two-time Horse of the Year Curlin as well Horses of the Year Rachel Alexandra and Gun Runner. He trained the great fillies Untapable and Midnight Bisou and Sprint champion Mitole. He has won 275 graded stakes and just about every big race there is to win _ except one. He is 0-for-23 in the Kentucky Derby. But he vowed he will be going after the Derby as hard as he ever has and one year, he will have the right horse.
Asmussen was 1-for-15 in his first year as a trainer in 1986. Nearly 46,000 starts later, he has won more races than anybody in North American history. He did not get discouraged in that first year. He is not going to get discouraged. He is just going to keep winning and winning and winning.
It took Pletcher what had to seem like forever to win the Derby. Casse has not won it yet, but he won’t stop trying either. That is what separates the best from the rest. And, of course, getting owners to supply you with fast horses.
“I can’t tell you how humbled I am to join this esteemed group,’’ Pletcher said in a typically understated speech. “So many of these guys were my childhood heroes, role models, mentors.’’
Pletcher has won 60 meet titles between NYRA tracks and Gulfstream Park. He has won seven Eclipse Awards as the nation’s leading trainer. He has won 705 graded stakes, including 166 Grade I. His horses have won a record $410 million.
When he went out on his own after being Wayne Lukas’s top assistant for years the question he kept getting was: what is the one thing you learned from Wayne Lukas?
“The answer is there is not one thing, it’s everything,’’ Pletcher said. “Everything matters. Everyone matters. Every horse matters. Every horse owner matters.’’
Casse was so emotional in his speech that when he talked about his parents, he had to get his wife Tina to read it. When she relayed that, after Casse’s parents divorced, it was his mother who agreed to let him stay with his father to be around horses, the trainer’s emotion was understandable. After all, his mother gave up living with her son to let him live out his dream which ended with a spot in the Hall of Fame.
“Who would have thought 50 years ago as I slept right over there in the Fasig-Tipton parking lot with my dad, had breakfast every day at the Saratoga Snack Shack that I would be standing here today?’’ Casse said. “Horse racing has always been my life. When I was little, I was reading the Racing Form instead of the comic strips. The worst day of the week was Sunday because there wasn’t a Form.’’
This past Sunday at Saratoga was a day of reflection to consider Asmussen’s record and the best of the best who earned induction into the Horse Racing Hall of Fame.