Dark Horse

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

Steve had taken out his jockey's license two years before, at the age of 16, and for three years he would ride in New Mexico, California and New York. But he was getting too big, and cutting weight was taking its toll. In 1983, after a race at Aqueduct, he nearly passed out. By that summer, he had given up on riding for good.

It was the hardest moment of his life. "It's what I wanted to be as a kid—nothing but," he says. "It devastated me."

For a born and bred horseman, there was no other option: He turned to training. In 1986, he began running his first string of horses, nags mostly, at a flea-bit track in New Mexico. He wasn't successful at all. In his first year, he went one for 15. Frustrated and angry, he went to speak to a Catholic priest. "I wasn't pleased with where I was at, personally or professionally," Asmussen says. The priest gave him some simple advice. "He said, 'Just wake up tomorrow and do whatever you think is right. You put enough of those days together, you'll be surprised at where you're at.'"

Asmussen grew up around horses and longed to be a jockey like his dad and brother.
Asmussen grew up around horses and longed to be a jockey like his dad and brother.
For an hour straight on Memorial Day, Steve Asmussen signed autographs for adoring fans at Lone Star Park. The trainer remains based at Lone Star, even though he could go to a bigger track.
Mark Graham
For an hour straight on Memorial Day, Steve Asmussen signed autographs for adoring fans at Lone Star Park. The trainer remains based at Lone Star, even though he could go to a bigger track.

For some reason, that simple piece of wisdom stuck with Asmussen. Slowly, the wins started to come.

By the mid-1990s, his career was starting to take off. The turf writer and handicapper Gary West remembers the first time he saw Asmussen in 1994 at Sam Houston Race Park in Houston. "He had this quiet confidence about himself," West recalls. "You just knew he was going to be very successful."

Not long after that, West says he was approached by two brothers from Houston, Leland and Bob Ackerley, who had made millions in the computer industry. They asked West what he thought of Asmussen. "He's going to be something," West said. Shortly after, the Ackerleys hired Asmussen.

It would prove to be a good match: Between 1995 and 1997, their top horse, Valid Expectations, won seven stakes races. In 1999, Asmussen won his first major-league race—a Grade 1 stakes at Belmont Park in New York.

He was now rising to national prominence. As his operation expanded, he started racking up wins by the bucket load.

By 2006, he had won training titles at tracks across the country, in Houston and San Antonio, New Orleans and Lafayette, New Mexico and Oklahoma. He was just 40, and he was one of the top trainers in the country.

He did have one knock on him—he couldn't win the big race. In five Breeders' Cup races he never placed. In the Kentucky Derby, he had never done better than ninth and had once finished dead last. Even in 2006, with a horse some handicappers considered a contender, he finished 15th. Steve Asmussen was a high-volume guy—he won a lot of races at second- and third-tier tracks—but when it really counted, when he bumped up against the big boys, he fell flat on his face.

If it embarrassed him, he didn't show it. He knew that eventually, if he kept winning, his time would come.

This year, everything changed with Curlin. Named for a black slave, the horse was of a caliber Asmussen had never before had access to. It was luck, really, that brought him to Asmussen's barn.

In his first start, against horses who'd been racing for a year, he blew out the field, winning by a whopping 12 3/4 lengths. By the time he hit the winner's circle at Florida's Gulfstream Park, the phone was ringing off the hook from investors who wanted a piece of him.

By the next day, a consortium of buyers that included a winery owner, an Indian software mogul and a California investor had cobbled together $3.5 million to buy an 80 percent share of the horse, which had been purchased the year before for $57,000.

Luckily for Asmussen, the new group of owners had worked with him before. At that moment, Curlin became his horse.

By the time the Kentucky Derby rolled around, Curlin was one of the favorites. He had won his first three starts by a combined 28 1/2 lengths. If he won, he would be the first horse since 1882 to win the Derby without any starts as a 2-year-old.

Stumbling out of the gate at Churchill Downs, Curlin never could make his way through the crowded Derby field until it was too late. He finished third. But the pundits agreed the horse was for real. With a bit more experience, he could turn into something special.

Coming into the Preakness Stakes two weeks later, he was again one of the favorites. Suddenly, the television cameras were on Asmussen. In previous Triple Crown races, running long shots, he had barely registered any screen time. Now an NBC reporter was walking stride for stride with him through the track's soft dirt as the horses made their way to the starting gate.

"Before the Derby you said to a reporter you were going to wear your lucky suit; I noticed this is a different suit than you wore on that day," she said. "Is this a lucky suit?" The suit was gray and a bit big. The sleeves hung halfway down Asmussen's hands. He looked nowhere near as chic as some of the trainers who regularly contended in races like this one. He smiled at the reporter's question.

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