By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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.
But the question is there, and it must be answered: Is Steve Asmussen a cheater?
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.
"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.
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.'"
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.
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.
"We're about to find out," he said lamely.
Up on a grassy knoll, facing the grandstands of Pimlico, a man dressed in white pants, a red coat and a black hat blew a bugle call as the horses stepped onto the track. Asmussen stood alone on the track apron; his family watched from the stands. His heart was beating through his chest. For the first time in his career, he had a horse with a real chance to win a classic.
When it was over, they would say it was one of the greatest Preaknesses ever. At the wire, after making a final surge, Curlin had overtaken Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense by the smallest of margins. In the photo finish, it was Curlin by a head.
For Asmussen it was the greatest moment of his career, if not his life. The next morning, while everyone else was sleeping, he and his father went to breakfast. It was, Asmussen says, the "best conversation we've ever had." Months later, he would speak of it reverently, his voice thick with emotion. Finally, everything the family had worked for had been achieved.
The win should've validated his career. But that's not how it played out in the media. Immediately after the race, columnists and bloggers marveled at the horse but wondered how they could root for it with such an unsavory cast of characters behind it. The original owners, a pair of Kentucky lawyers who still owned a 20 percent share, had been found guilty of defrauding clients following a successful class-action lawsuit over the diet drug fen-phen.
The other owners of the horse were viewed as Johnny-come-latelies who'd simply bought their way into the winner's circle. And then there was Asmussen, the so-called super-trainer who won at an astonishing rate at small tracks. Something about him stunk.
A year before the Preakness, Asmussen had been hit with one of the stiffest doping penalties in recent memory by the Louisiana Racing Commission, which determined that a horse in his care had run on a banned substance called mepivacaine. If used improperly, the drug, which is a nerve blocker, can allow a horse to run on a damaged leg. In this case, the racing commission determined that Asmussen's horse had been given 750 times the legal limit of the drug. The horse had pulled up badly during the race and labored to finish.
At a hearing to discuss the suspension, Asmussen said he had no idea how the drug ended up in the horse's system. He had ordered a cortisone shot for the horse's knee just seven days before the race, but on race day, the horse had appeared to be fine. It is purely speculation, but entirely possible considering the horse's history, that it was given mepivacaine to allow it to run on a bad knee. If this is true, it put everyone in the race in serious danger. If the horse's knee were to blow out, any horse near it would be likely to trip and fall, setting off a chain reaction that could prove disastrous and even fatal to any number of horses and riders.
He did admit that he had ordered two other drugs that were illegal on race day—one to increase endurance and another to reduce bleeding in the lungs. The horse had also been given Lasix, a legal anti-bleeding medication that most horses run on. Perhaps the vets had made a mistake, injecting mepivacaine when they meant to administer another drug.
The vets said this would be impossible. Mepivacaine was injected directly into the joint. The other illegal drugs, which they insisted they hadn't given, were shot into the jugular. If mepivacaine were injected into the jugular it would bring a horse to its knees.
A groom testified that he had left the horse alone for eight to nine minutes, leaving the door open for sabotage. Considering that there is no security or video cameras at Evangeline Downs, and the total domination Asmussen has had there, sabotage is a possibility, says Steven Barker, the lab director on the case.
It wasn't the first time Asmussen had used this defense to explain a drug positive. In 1999 and 2001 he had been before the very same commission for doping violations, one involving a drug called ketorolac, an anti-inflammatory, and another for clenbuterol, which clears breathing passages. In 2004, he was brought before the Texas Racing Commission for another clenbuterol positive, for which he was fined $20,000 and suspended 15 days.
That same year, he had three other positives, in Louisiana, New Mexico and Texas for a sedative called acepromazine. Even as he stood before the Louisiana Racing Commission, he was facing a six-month suspension in New Mexico for another acepromazine positive.
Despite testimony from the chair of the American Association of Equine Practitioners, who said Asmussen had an impeccable reputation as a trainer who did things "on the up and up," and that a mistake like this could only be the result of an accident, which was understandable considering the thousands of races Asmussen ran every year, the Louisiana Racing Commission gave him the maximum suspension. For six months, he would be banned from every track in America.
The suspension made headlines here and there but hardly made a splash beyond the horse racing world. Even among fairly knowledgeable race fans, Asmussen's rap as a cheater was mostly unknown.
Then he won the Preakness. He wasn't just a trainer who won a lot of no-name races any more. He had just won a classic. "I'll tell you what I said to my wife when he won," said a nationally known vet who asked not to be identified. "I said, 'Goddammit, a known cheater just won the Preakness.'" Like Barry Bonds chasing Hank Aaron's hallowed home run record, Asmussen had tainted one of the sport's most storied events.
Shortly after the Derby, HBO's Real Sports ran a segment on doping, which it called horse racing's dirty little secret. The segment focused heavily on Asmussen. At one point, a reporter asked him if he knew how many drug positives he had on his record.
"No," Asmussen answered sharply.
"You don't know?"
The reporter asked Asmussen if he could explain how one of his horses had tested positive for 750 times the legal limit of a drug banned on race days.
Asmussen rolled his eyes, which were flashing with anger.
"How do you explain that?"
"Well, I don't explain that," he said, his voice cracking. "Like I said, they proved that it was in the horse. You think that there would be the possibility that somebody would like to see me get in trouble for the success that I've had?"
He seemed to be suggesting that someone had set him up.
"Are you suggesting...?"
Asmussen cut him off.
"No. No, I'm not. I'm responsible. But you're suggesting that I knowingly gave, what, 750 times the limit of a drug that is so easily detectable. I mean...I'm not that ignorant."
The minute the interview was over he called Darren Rogers, the PR man at Lone Star Park, and said: "They got me."
Asmussen was right. In the interview, he comes across as defensive and argumentative. It also seems highly unlikely that Asmussen, who is known for having a Rain Man-like memory, didn't know how many positives he had on his record.
For many viewers, it was the first time they had ever even heard of Steve Asmussen. In the following days, both The Washington Post and The New York Times did similar stories. Like it or not, Asmussen had become the poster boy for horse racing's drug problem.
Some say drugs are ruining the game. Because horses now depend on drugs to race, they pass their infirmities on to their offspring, and as a result they are more fragile than they were three decades ago. Horses today enter half as many races as they did in the 1970s and 1980s, and yet they are breaking down more.
These breakdowns are often horrifying to behold, and they have done irreparable harm to the game's image (consider Barbaro). One reason horses are breaking down more, experts say, is that a drugged-up horse will run through pain.
On the recent Real Sports program that focused on Asmussen, a vet with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation said he had recently treated a horse that had been forced to run on a broken pelvis. Stories like these, he said, are a dime a dozen.
"You'll take a horse that as it comes off the track it's shiny, it's fit, it looks like an athlete, and then as the drugs wear off they start to walk around like an 80-year-old man," said the vet.
So far, the horse racing industry has done little to crack down on violators. As HBO noted, the nation's top trainers are a "who's who of dopers." In this year's Kentucky Derby, nearly half the field was trained by men with doping violations in the past year. Dallas native Todd Pletcher, who entered a record five horses and is the nation's leading trainer three years running, began the year on suspension in New York. Scott Lake, who led the nation in wins last year, had 24 positives on his record and five suspensions. Two of his horses have tested positive for traces of cocaine.
"I think that the use of illegal drugs is so widespread and so out of control that these are not assorted brush fires that have to be put out. This is like a raging forest fire," Washington Post turf writer Andy Beyer told National Public Radio last year. Beyer said there's a lack of will within the industry to do anything substantive about it. "All racetracks are very dependent on their trainers and particularly their big trainers to put on the show. In horse racing, there's enough image problems to begin with that no racetrack wants a scandal making, you know, front-page headlines...You almost never see high-profile trainers get the book thrown at them."
That's what made Asmussen's suspension unique. For the first time, a big-name trainer was hit with a penalty that hurt. Or did it? Asmussen's assistant trainer picked up right where he left off, and not a single horse in their barn missed a race.
"Your cash flow keeps coming in, everything's running status quo, well, who cares, what's the big deal about that?" says Jenine Sahadi, a California trainer who won a Breeders' Cup race in 1996. "They basically amount to a slap on the wrist."
Sahadi is one of the few trainers who is willing to speak out on the issue, and she has been blasted for doing so. Insiders at Lone Star Park use terms like "crazy" and "out there" to describe her. Sahadi has gone so far as to tape her stable doors shut every night to keep someone from sabotaging her horses.
She says she doesn't know Asmussen or have an opinion on his reputation. But she says this new breed of super-trainer is changing the game.
"What I'm seeing now I didn't see 15 years ago," she says. "It used to be, if you could win at 18 to 20 percent on the year, you were hitting a home run. You hit at 20 percent now, you're having a shit year, my friend.
"We have super-trainers now who win at 40 percent, they are bi-coastal, their operations are so big they control the entry box, they control the jockeys, they control everything about racing."
Others say the drug problem in horse racing has been greatly exaggerated. In Texas, it's been more than two years since any trainer had a Class 1 drug violation.
"There's so much misunderstanding out there, and there's so many people who have this wrong impression of horse racing and drugs," says Gary West, who covers horse racing for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. "Certainly everybody who trains horses in horse racing uses drugs, just as any athlete uses drugs therapeutically, for medicinal purposes. I suspect that on any given Sunday no player in the NFL could pass the same test these racehorses pass every day."
Most everyone in the business agrees that some changes are in order. For starters, rules and penalties should be uniform from state to state. As it is, what's legal on race day in one state might be illegal in another. In Texas, for example, any unlabeled medication is a violation, which as far as Asmussen knows, isn't a rule anywhere else. The suspensions also vary. Asmussen got six months for a mepivacaine violation, when Todd Pletcher got 45 days for the same drug.
"What horse racing needs is a national commissioner," says KTCK-1310 AM host Norm Hitzges, a handicapper at Lone Star Park. "Horse racing survives on the confidence of the person walking through the door placing the wager, and if horse racing ever gets to the point where the suspicion of the everyday wagerer gets too great, it will suffer financially. It will."
The vast majority of trainers, Sahadi says, are clean. The problem is the biggest names in the sport are the ones racking up the positives.
"Look, I love this game and don't want to hurt it," she says. "The only reason I'm doing this is to raise awareness. What a human being does to himself has nothing to do with me. If a football player wants to use illegal drugs, I have no control over that kind of situation. But a horse has no voice."
Curlin lost in the Belmont by a mere 6 inches in another thrilling finish. But still they are saying he could be Horse of the Year, depending on how he does in the Breeders' Cup, and it still amazes Asmussen that he's even part of that conversation.
Tonight, he's sitting alone in the courtyard near the paddock, as the horses are saddled for the next race. From a distance, he looks like a bettor trying to figure out a 10-cent superfecta. A few people who pass notice him. "Is that Steve Asmussen?" they whisper. But mostly, he goes unnoticed.
A month, maybe more, has passed since his name and the word "doping" were linked in newspaper stories across the country. Even ESPN brought it up, that question he hates. But this time, he was ready. He wasn't defensive. He was direct and firm: I didn't put it in her, and I don't know how it got in her. Simple as that. Take it or leave it.
It's ridiculous, really, to suggest it was anything else. Considering how many starts he has in a year (about 2,000) and how often he goes to the test barn (at least 800 times a year), 22 violations over two decades is a fraction too small to register. But he has no complaints. Frankly, the suspension was good for him. It forced him to step away from the game and take a look at his life. It was strange, to be at home every day, and not on the road, traveling to some track in Kentucky or Chicago or New York. He wondered how his children would react, how his wife would react, to seeing him at home every day. "That's extremely shallow to say, but when you're always doing it you want to make sure they feel the same way about you when you're not doing it. If I'm working at the 7-11 on the corner, which is what my education called for, would they treat me the same?"
He liked being home. He took his kids fishing. He watched basketball practice, which he had never before had time to do.
And he realized something: He was headed in the wrong direction. Believe it or not, he didn't want to be like D. Wayne Lukas, the legendary trainer his father had ridden for, the man who had brought them to Texas. "He's on about his fifth wife. And his kids don't talk to him," Asmussen says. "Do you want to know what bothers him? Not having one in the Derby, at 70-something. You've already won it more than anybody else. I don't want to be that."
And so things are different now. Tonight, he was two hours late to the track because he was at home swimming with his boys. Maybe it was winning the Preakness, maybe that took some of the weight off his shoulders. In any event, he is much more relaxed than he has ever been before.
What other people say about him—if they say he's cruel to his help or obsessed with winning, or worst of all, that he's a cheat—he doesn't care much. What matters most to him is what his family thinks of him. "When everybody tells you you're great, they ain't right, and when they tell you you're shit, they ain't right," he says. "But if you got my family to go home to, you didn't have a bad day. Those are the things that matter."
As if on cue, he looks up to see that his wife and sons have arrived. She is a former flight attendant with blond hair, piercing blue eyes and shapely legs. Their boys look a lot like her. He waves them over, and one of his boys shows him the tooth he lost earlier in the day. Asmussen tousles his boy's hair and laughs.
Later that night, Asmussen is in the usual spot where he watches races—a metal bench near the rail. His boys sit between him and his wife.
It's a race no one will remember, the fifth or sixth race on a forgettable Friday-night card, played out on a soft track beneath the lights. The horse starts slow and appears to have no chance. Then, around the final turn, he makes his move. And as usual, Steve Asmussen wins.
"People who say I'm a cheater? Well, that's the dumbest thing I ever heard," he says. "On average, mine cost a 100 [thousand], yours cost 10 [thousand], and you're wondering why I'm beating you? It ain't any kind of drugs or anything else. The horses are just faster."