Barn Notes - 3/29/24

Compiled by Robert Yates

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas put jockey Keith Asmussen on his first career Oaklawn winner Jan. 14, 2023.

Their third together in Hot Springs was one for the ages.

Lukas, 88, and Asmussen, 25, pulled the biggest upset in Honeybee history when Lemon Muffin, in her two-turn and stakes debut, broke her maiden in the $400,000 Grade 3 race Feb. 24.

Lukas and Asmussen, two of the most iconic names in Thoroughbred racing history, team up again with Lemon Muffin in the $750,000 G2-Fantasy Stakes Saturday at Oaklawn. Lukas also tapped Asmussen to ride Just Steel for the first time in Oaklawn’s signature event, Saturday’s $1.5 million G1-Arkansas Derby. The Arkansas Derby and Fantasy are major preps for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, respectively.

Asmussen, the son of Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, will be making his Grade 1 debut aboard Just Steel, who tries to rebound from a seventh-place finish in the $1.25 million G2-Rebel Stakes Feb. 24. About 75 minutes before the Rebel, Keith Asmussen guided Lemon Muffin, at odds of 28-1, to a 3 ½-length victory in the Honeybee.

Lemon Muffin was a record-extending seventh Honeybee victory for Lukas and the first career graded stakes score for Asmussen, who rode his first winner in 2020 and climbed to second in the 2023-2024 Oaklawn standings with 41 victories through Thursday. Asmussen also rode Lemon Muffin Dec. 31 at Oaklawn, one of four consecutive runner-up finishes for the gray daughter of Collected prior to the Honeybee.

“Always loved the filly and always trusted Wayne,” Asmussen said. “Couldn’t have been more excited.”

Asmussen launched his full-time riding career in late 2022 after earning a master’s degree in professional accounting earlier in the year from the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business. Asmussen waived his apprentice weight allowance because he’s 5-10, taller than most jockeys.

Lukas and Asmussen teamed for two victories last season at Oaklawn with Papa Rocket, who was racing for a $30,000 claiming tag. Lukas said naming Asmussen on horses the caliber of Lemon Muffin and Just Steel (also a stakes winner) in six- and seven-figure events a little more than a year later illustrates how the jockey has earned the trainer’s trust.

“That’s a good way to put it,” Lukas said Wednesday morning. “He’s extremely smart. He’s very smart about riding. He’s got that horsemanship background from that family. He listens and tries to do what you want to do. He’s too tall. I’d like to take a foot off him. But he gets over and down pretty good and, every time I ride him, he does even better than I expect him to do. He’s earned my trust. He’s earned the right to have one in each race.”

Asmussen was aboard Lemon Muffin and Just Steel for their final major workouts for the Fantasy and Arkansas Derby March 14 at Oaklawn. Steve Asmussen has three horses entered in the Arkansas Derby and one in the Fantasy.

Lukas and the Asmussen family (Steve’s parents), dating to their Quarter-Horse days, have been close friends for approximately 60 years.

Five of a Kind?

Jockey Cristian Torres, Oaklawn’s leading rider this season, can win his fifth Kentucky Derby points race of 2023-2024 – on a fifth different horse – in Saturday’s $1.5 million G1-Arkansas Derby.

Torres is named on Dimatic for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who is seeking his record-tying fifth Arkansas Derby victory. Torres will be riding Dimatic (20-1 on the morning line) for the first time.

“Just happy to be in the race,” Torres said Thursday morning. “That’s a nice horse. Just happy that Steve put me on that horse. Seems to be getting better each race and he’s still learning and eventually he’ll get there.”

Torres, 26, has four victories in 2023-2024 Kentucky Derby points races (more than any other rider), including two at Oaklawn. The country’s 35-race Road to the Kentucky Derby series, already a head-spinning journey for Torres, began in September.

Two of Torres’ winners, Timberlake and Liberal Arts, are also entered in the Arkansas Derby. Torres recorded his biggest career victory to date aboard Timberlake in the $1.25 G2-million Rebel Stakes. The Rebel is traditionally Oaklawn’s final major Arkansas Derby prep.

“It happens,” Torres said. “That’s how the business is. I’m just grateful that they gave me the opportunity in the last race and I was able to get the job done. That’s how the business is.”

Torres was aboard Timberlake for the first time in the Rebel because his regular pilot, Florent Geroux, was in the Middle East to ride the Brad Cox-trained Saudi Crown in the $20 million G1-Saudi Cup, the world’s richest race. Geroux will be in the United Arab Emirates Saturday to ride Saudi Crown in the $1 million G2-Godolphin Mile.

Cox named Flavien Prat to ride Timberlake in the Arkansas Derby. Cox and Prat teamed to win the $1 million G2-Louisiana Derby last Saturday at Fair Grounds with Catching Freedom.

Torres won the $300,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 1 aboard Catching Freedom. The Smarty Jones was Oaklawn’s first of four Kentucky Derby points races this year. Torres also won two Kentucky Derby points races late last year – $200,000 G3-Street Sense Stakes Oct. 29 at Churchill Downs aboard Liberal Arts for trainer Robert Medina and $100,000 Gun Runner Stakes Dec. 23 at Fair Grounds aboard Track Phantom for Asmussen.

Track Phantom, under Joel Rosario, finished fourth as the favorite in the Louisiana Derby. Torres had ridden Liberal Arts in his last four starts, including a third-place finish in the $800,000 G3-Southwest Stakes Feb. 3. The Southwest was Oaklawn’s second Kentucky Derby points race.

Tyler Gaffalione will be reunited with Liberal Arts in the Arkansas Derby. Medina said Gaffalione breezed Liberal Arts before his racing career began and was scheduled to ride the Arrogate colt in his May 25 debut at Churchill Downs. But Gaffalione missed that day because of a suspension (crop violation) and Liberal Arts was ridden by Jareth Loveberry. Gaffalione rode Liberal Arts in his second career start.

Torres now lands on Dimatic, a homebred for Winchell Thoroughbreds (Ron and Joan Winchell) who exits a fifth-place finish in the Rebel. Torres has never ridden in the Kentucky Derby.

“That’s the goal, to be in the Derby,” Torres said.

The Rebel marked the first career seven-figure victory for Torres. A Puerto Rico native, Torres rode his first winner April 21, 2019, at Gulfstream Park and was Oaklawn’s leading rider last season with 100 victories.

Torres has 64 victories this season at Oaklawn.