Hall of Fame Trainer Steve Asmussen Hits Another Oaklawn Milestone

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Steve Asmussen became the second trainer to reach 700 career victories at Oaklawn when even-money favorite Swiftsure captured Saturday’s seventh race under Ricardo Santana Jr.

Asmussen entered the 2021 Oaklawn meeting that began Friday with 696 career victories in Hot Springs. He saddled one winner Friday and added victories in Saturday’s fourth race with favored Jalen Journey ($4.40) and sixth race, the $150,000 Fifth Season Stakes, with favored Silver State ($3.80) before reaching the career milestone with Swiftsure ($4).

A two-time Eclipse Award winner (2008 and 2009) as the nation’s outstanding trainer, Asmussen, 55, was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2016. He is seeking his record-tying 11th Oaklawn training title.

“Oaklawn’s been unbelievably good to us,” Asmussen said. “I think it’s propelled us to where we’re at. The opportunity to run this quality of horse for a good amount of money – there’s a lot of good people we work for to go out and continue to improve their stock. Everything feels like it’s headed in the right direction.”

Asmussen started his first horse at Oaklawn in 1989 and saddled his first winner in Hot Springs Feb. 9, 1996 (Honest J). Asmussen recorded his first Oaklawn stakes victory the following day with Valid Expectations in the $50,000 Mountain Valley for 3-year-old sprinters. Valid Expectations, Asmussen’s first nationally prominent runner, was ridden by older brother Cash Asmussen, an Eclipse Award-winning apprentice and champion jockey in France.

Steve Asmussen has at least one stakes victory every in Hot Springs since 1996 and Silver State marked his Oaklawn-record 90th overall. He set a single-season Oaklawn record for purse earnings in 2019 ($5,644,609). Asmussen, through Saturday, had started 3,408 horses in his Oaklawn career.

Some of Asmussen’s top horses to run at Oaklawn include champions Curlin, Untapable, Gun Runner, Mitole and Midnight Bisou – all stakes winners in Hot Springs.

The late Bob Holthus is the only other trainer in Oaklawn history with 700 career victories. Holthus, a nine-time Oaklawn training champion, recorded more than 850 in Hot Springs.

“Am I second? Dang, I’m second in a lot of categories, aren’t I?” Asmussen joked. “Second all-time in wins, second at Oaklawn in wins, second in money earned.”

Asmussen entered Sunday second in North American history career in purse earnings (more than $344 million), according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization, and second in career victories (9,159), including two with Curlin in the United Arab Emirates in 2008. Asmussen is projected to surpass the late Dale Baird (9,445) for career victories this fall. A former jockey, Asmussen had his first starter, and victory, in 1986.

“I promised you this,” Asmussen said. “I don’t plan on stopping right on it (9,445), if that matters at all.”

Hall of Famer Henry Forrest (11) holds the record for most career Oaklawn training titles. Asmussen was Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 2007, 2008, 2010, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2016, 2017, 2018 and 2019. His 64 victories in 2019 is the second-highest single-season total in Oaklawn history.

Saturday’s triple left Asmussen and Brad Cox (four victories) tied for the early lead in this year’s Oaklawn standings. Both are finalists for an Eclipse Award as the country’s outstanding trainer of 2020.

Ricardo’s Rides

Seven-time Oaklawn champion jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. recorded a riding triple Saturday, propelling him into second in the standings with four victories after Day 2 of the scheduled 57-day meeting.

Santana won the fourth race with favored Jalen Journey ($4.40), sixth race, the $150,000 Fifth Season Stakes for older horses, with favored Silver State ($3.80) and the seventh race with favored Swiftsure ($4). Santana’s victories were all for his major client, Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.

Santana’s status for opening weekend had been clouded after he said family members became ill following a recent vacation to Cancun, Mexico. The family emergency, Santana said, forced him to miss cards earlier this month at Fair Grounds, including a stakes-heavy Jan. 16 program.

“Wednesday, I decided to come,” Santana said. “I didn’t know if I was going to come this week. I was going to stay with my family. All the family is feeling better, so I decided to come Wednesday night. Steve Asmussen asked me if I wanted to ride. I told him I feel good.”

Santana and Asmussen also teamed to win Friday’s sixth race with favored Saffa’s Day ($4.20). Asmussen became just the second trainer in Oaklawn history to reach 700 career victories with Swiftsure’s victory.

“I’m really blessed to be riding this weekend and be on Steve’s 700th winner here,” Santana said.

Saturday’s triple pushed Santana’s career Oaklawn total to 550, with almost half (262) coming for Asmussen.

Santana, 28, began riding at Oaklawn in 2011. He was the track’s leading rider in 2013-2018 and 2020. Santana set a single-season Oaklawn record for purse earnings ($4,317,757) in 2019.

Newcomer Florent Geroux had a meet-high five victories through the first two days of racing.

Ladies Day

Owners Alex and JoAnn Lieblong of Conway, Ark., were scheduled to send out two promising 3-year-old fillies Sunday in Willful Woman and unbeaten Abrogate, both under the care of Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.

Abrogate, a $270,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase in 2019, is from the first crop of Outwork and was a sharp Nov. 12 debut winner at Churchill Downs. She was the 8-5 program favorite in race 8, an entry-level allowance sprint.

“She did well the first time, I’ll say that,” Alex Lieblong said. “The problem is, they’ve got to do it again.”

Willful Woman was the 3-2 program favorite for the third race, a 1-mile maiden special weights event. Third in two maiden special weights races last fall in Kentucky, Willful Woman is from the first crop of champion Nyquist and a half-sister to Ever So Clever, the Asmussen-trained winner of the $400,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) for 3-year-old fillies in 2017 at Oaklawn.

The Lieblongs have roughly a dozen horses on the grounds with three trainers. The bulk are with Asmussen, a 10-time Oaklawn training champion. Oaklawn’s third-leading owners last year also have two horses with trainer Steve Hobby of Hot Springs and another, Skip Intro, a 3-year-old half-brother to 2020 Breeders’ Cup Sprint champion Whitmore, with trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs. Moquett also trains Whitmore, a seven-time Oaklawn stakes winner.

Alex Lieblong is chairman of the Arkansas Racing Commission.

Finish Lines

Jockey Francisco Arrieta recorded his first career Oaklawn victory in Saturday’s third race aboard One for Richie ($15.20) for co-owner/trainer Cipriano Contreras. … Multiple graded stakes winner Frank’s Rockette and 2019 winner Amy’s Challenge are among nine horses entered in the $150,000 American Beauty Stakes for older female sprinters Jan. 30 at Oaklawn. Frank’s Rockette finished second in the $100,000 Purple Martin Stakes for 3-year-old filly sprinters last April at Oaklawn for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott and breeder/owner Frank Fletcher of North Little Rock, Ark. Mott was Oaklawn’s leading trainer in 1986. … Coach, a winner of 3 for 4 career starts for trainer Brad Cox, is among six horses entered in the $200,000 Martha Washington Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 1 mile Jan. 30 at Oaklawn. Coach finished third in the $200,000 Golden Rod Stakes (G2) Nov. 28 at Churchill Downs in her last start. … Through Saturday, the second day of the scheduled 57-day meeting, 20 claims had totaled $308,000. … Knicks Go, Cox’s powerful 2020 Oaklawn winner, captured the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes (G1) for older horses Saturday at Gulfstream Park. Oaklawn stakes winners Gun Runner and City of Light also won the Pegasus in 2018 and 2019, respectively. The Pegasus was inaugurated in 2017.