Dark Horse

Is Steve Asmussen the greatest racehorse trainer in America, or is he a cheater?

But the question is there, and it must be answered: Is Steve Asmussen a cheater?

Perhaps it is jealousy. Perhaps it is the easiest way to explain such a question. It is easier, really, to say that he is a cheat, than to admit the alternative—that he is simply better than the rest.

Or maybe it is resentment. For the way he treats his help, or his habit of berating jockeys as they dismount, or the way he chews out security guards who fail to recognize him.

On May 19, Asmussen won the Preakness Stakes with jockey Robby Albarado aboard Curlin. It was the biggest win of Asmussen's career, but some thought it was tainted by his past.
On May 19, Asmussen won the Preakness Stakes with jockey Robby Albarado aboard Curlin. It was the biggest win of Asmussen's career, but some thought it was tainted by his past.

"I can be hard on people. It is in me," he says. "But winning is how we're measured. You want everything to be right, and it's either right or it isn't."

Or maybe it's because he doesn't fraternize much with other trainers. His operation is a family affair, and it is closed off to outsiders. In many ways he is a man apart, and maybe they hate him for this.

But to call him a cheat? Anyone who knows him knows he would never give a horse 750 times the legal limit of a drug banned on race day, not with so much to lose and so little to gain. He is not that ignorant. Anyone who knows him knows there are explanations for the 22 doping violations on his record. In an operation his size, mistakes are bound to happen. No, he is not a cheat.

It is unfair, really, to saddle him with such a label, without knowing who he is and where he came from. To call him a cheat is to denigrate his profession, to challenge the very things that make up the man. Because above all else, Steve Asmussen is a horseman.

How deep is his obsession? He was married on a "dark" day, meaning a day with no racing, and the next morning he was back at the track. How abiding is his obsession? His wife was induced into labor for their first two children so they would be born on dark days. Horse racing is Asmussen's life.

"I think that it's odd that you watch people get criticized for their personalities and they excel at something, yet if they didn't have that personality they wouldn't be succeeding," he says.

But it goes deeper than that, deeper than some petty insult born of jealousy. To call him a cheat is to besmirch his family name, to tarnish all they have worked toward for two generations.

They came to Texas in 1967 from South Dakota with everything they had loaded in their pickup. At the time, Steve's father rode as a jockey for an obscure quarter horse trainer named D. Wayne Lukas, who would go on to have a Hall of Fame career. They raced at the Laredo fairgrounds. Laredo was flat, brown and ugly, but the weather was nice year-round, so it seemed the perfect place for what the family wanted to do: build a world-class horse training facility.

Steve was only 2 when the family moved to Laredo, and he remembers nothing of those early years, except the white pony his father would sit him on while the horses were exercised around their small but growing farm. His father was a small man, maybe 5-foot-4 in cowboy boots, and his mother, who also trained horses, was even smaller, with legs like toothpicks and arms as thin as pencils.

As soon as Steve and his older brother Cash were old enough to ride, they became involved in all aspects of the operation: from breaking colts to mucking stalls. Over the years, they would ride hundreds of horses for their father. Steve didn't know it then, but it was the perfect preparation for what he would become.

He had no interest in becoming a trainer; all he wanted to do was ride like his dad. As boys, he and Cash would lie awake at night in their trailer and dream of things they would one day do as jockeys, until their father came in and told them to go to sleep. There were chores to do in the morning, manure to muck and horses to feed, and 5 a.m. would come awful quickly.

Cash started riding in races at 11, sometimes sneaking off to outlaw tracks in places like Zapata, Texas. When he was 16, he left home to ride professionally. Before long, he was the top rider in New York, and then he left for France, where he would ride for some of the richest men in the world: a Saudi prince, a French art collector and a Greek shipping magnate. It went to his head.

Bowlegged, crass and cocky—one writer called him the "Texan with the 10-gallon ego"—Cash became something of a celebrity on the European riding circuit. In 1985, he won the first of five Golden Whip awards as the season's best jockey, and the family flew to France to attend the award ceremony. The event left an indelible impression on Steve, who couldn't believe it when his brother gave the acceptance speech in French. He had come a long way from showing steers at the county fair. For the first time, Steve realized the things they'd dreamed about as kids were actually coming true.

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