By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
It's the second race at Lone Star Park, and the trainers are saddling their horses. A jockey dressed in black silks is boosted atop the long shot, a bay filly with a dab of white between her eyes. The horse is fit but looks skinny and fragile: Her ankles are taped and her ribs are visible beneath her coat, which glistens in the sprinkling rain.
The jockey playfully twirls his whip and smiles at the crowd. They lean against the waist-high fence, hoping to get a closer look at the filly as she slowly circles the paddock. They are an assorted lot—cowboys in snakeskin boots, chain smokers who favor gold chains and chubby women in gym shorts. They earnestly study their race programs, trying to figure out whom to bet on.
At the center of the paddock, near a fountain surrounded by grass, a group of television reporters have gathered around one of the trainers whose horses will compete today. Once a jockey, he is now much too tall and heavy to "make weight." He is handsome, with smooth olive skin, gray hair as soft and fluffy as pigeon feathers and a well-trimmed black goatee. Some say he is soft-spoken, even shy. Others say he is abrasive and makes a bad first impression. He is one of the most controversial figures in all of Thoroughbred racing. His name is Steve Asmussen, and he wins more races than any other trainer at this track.
In the horse racing world, he is what's known as a super-trainer. He races out of barns in Chicago, New Orleans, Kentucky, Dallas, Houston and New York, as well as smaller tracks in Louisiana, Oklahoma and New Mexico. More than 200 horses run under his name. Today, he will race 13 horses at two tracks. To keep up with it all, he is constantly on the phone, talking to his assistants, or in the air, flying to another track. He is home just a few days a week with his wife and his three small boys. There are other trainers like him—young, polished, meticulously organized machines—who run strings of horses at tracks across the country. They are known as the young lions of the sport, and they are taking over the game and changing it forever.
Asmussen wins more races than just about any of them. In 2004 he won 555 races, breaking the North American record for most wins in a single season, a mark that had been in place since 1976. But that pales in comparison to his most recent accomplishment. On May 19, with a strapping chestnut colt named Curlin, he won one of the most prestigious horse races in America—the Preakness
Stakes, which follows the Kentucky Derby and is the second leg of the Triple Crown. Finally, after years of toiling in obscurity at far-flung tracks and a series of embarrassing defeats in big races, he had arrived in the upper echelon of the sport. The win immediately thrust him into the national spotlight.
That's why the ESPN crew is here today. They've got shots of his stately Arlington home—something reporters around here never get to see. Everywhere Asmussen goes, the cameras and the boom mikes follow. He will be the centerpiece of a special that ESPN will air before the Belmont Stakes, the final leg in the Triple Crown and a race in which Asmussen's horse is favored to win.
Today is a homecoming of sorts for Lone Star Park's favorite son. Earlier this morning, fresh off a flight from Kentucky, he spent an hour signing autographs near the entrance to the park. In a few minutes, he will walk down the glass-walled tunnel that leads to the track, where Lone Star officials will present him with a giant cake and wish him best of luck at the Belmont in two weeks. But for now, while the horses circle the paddock before the next race, he is answering a few questions from the local media.
"What was it like to win the Preakness?" one reporter asks. Asmussen, who speaks so softly the reporters on the edge of the circle can barely hear him, smiles and says something canned and forgettable. "What is it about Curlin that makes him so special?" another reporter asks of the Preakness winner. When they are finished, the PR man at Lone Star pulls Asmussen aside and tells him there is one more interview, a one-on-one with a reporter from a cable news channel. Asmussen nods. He has a few minutes before the next race.
The reporter begins with the same sorts of questions. Asmussen, as usual, is gracious and humble in his responses. He takes no credit for his horse's success; that goes to his family and the people behind him. Curlin is a special horse, he says, and we're doing everything we can to get him ready.
And then the reporter asks him something that makes him stop cold. The smile vanishes. His warm almond eyes go dark. His jaw tenses, his neck stiffens. It is a question he hates. And ever since he won the Preakness, it's the question that keeps coming up. They whisper it in the grandstands and in the barns and in the press box at tracks across America. It's an ugly question, one he shouldn't even dignify with an answer.