Oaklawn Barn Notes - Asmussen and Asmussen Set for Opening Weekend

Oaklawn Barn Notes by Robert Yates

Contact: Jennifer Hoyt, jhoyt@oaklawn.com or (501) 363-4305

Friday, December 09, 2022

Asmussen and Asmussen Set for Opening Weekend

Trainer Steve Asmussen shown with his parents Marilyn and Keith

Photo Credit: Coady Photography

Team Asmussen is scheduled to have fans seeing double in Friday’s first race at Oaklawn. Not only does Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen own Bourbon On Fire, his son, Keith J. Asmussen, is named to ride the gelding in the maiden-claiming sprint.

It’s the first scheduled Oaklawn mount for Asmussen, 24, who resumed riding this fall after earning a master’s degree in professional accounting earlier this year from the University of Texas’ McCombs School of Business.

“It kind of just went from there,” said Asmussen, who has seven victories from 75 career mounts. “I got out of school; I went straight to the racetrack. It’s like I graduated, and I was at Lone Star the next week.”

Asmussen, of course, hails from one of the most prominent families in American Thoroughbred history. His grandfather, Keith I. Asmussen, helps oversee the famed El Primero Training Center near Laredo, Texas, where many of Steve Asmussen’s greatest runners have been broken.

Steve Asmussen, inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2016, is the winningest trainer in North American history (9,957 through Wednesday) and has collected a record 12 Oaklawn training titles. He was honored with an Eclipse Award as the country’s outstanding trainer in 2008 and 2009. Keith J. Asmussen’s uncle, Cash Asmussen, won an Eclipse Award in 1979 as the country’s outstanding apprentice jockey before becoming a champion rider in France.

So, when it came to an early career choice, Keith J. Asmussen quickly returned to his roots, rather than an office and a traditional 9 to 5 accounting gig, after graduating last May from Texas.

“I would probably be working for my father on the backside,” Asmussen said, when asked what he would doing if he wasn’t riding. “I’m addicted to it, hopelessly. I’m infatuated with horses.”

Asmussen said he grew up riding before he began galloping horses on the racetrack at 16 and has gotten on many prominent runners for his father during that time, including Grade 1 winner Basin and Private Creed, third in the $1 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint (G1) Nov. 4 at Keeneland.

Asmussen has been galloping and working horses for his father since late November at Oaklawn in preparation for the 2022-2023 meeting that begins Friday. The jockey also spent much of early 2020 in Hot Springs getting on horses for his father after in-person classes at Texas were canceled because of COVID-19.

The switch to remote learning allowed Asmussen to get on horses in the morning and become fit enough to eventually ride. He debuted June 15, 2020, at Lone Star Park in Grand Prairie, Texas, which is minutes from his home.

Asmussen recorded his first career victory July 26, 2020, at Lone Star aboard the Steve Asmussen-trained Inis Gluaire. It was Keith J. Asmussen’s 19th career mount. Father and son would strike again roughly two weeks later at Lone Star with future Arkansas Derby winner Super Stock, co-owned by Keith I. Asmussen, in the $113,647 Texas Thoroughbred Futurity Stakes for 2-year-olds. It remains the jockey’s biggest career victory to date.

After graduating from Texas, Asmussen began galloping horses at Lone Star and followed his father to Saratoga, then Kentucky, before he resumed riding Oct. 27 at Keeneland. Asmussen has had 14 mounts this year, highlighted by a neck victory aboard Tonal Impact for his father Nov. 23 at Churchill Downs. The jockey’s other six victories came in 2020 (five at Lone Star and one at Remington Park in Oklahoma City).

“I don’t think I really wanted to go back to school after the first time I started riding,” Asmussen said. “My parents kind of set me down and it’s like, ‘Finish it out,’ because I was close to going off the deep end and just not wanting to go back. Before I even started riding, I mean, my dad, he knew it was like once you start, you’re not going to want to go back to school. So, he made me promise to finish my education.”

As far as his continuing equine education, Asmussen credits eight-time Oaklawn riding champion Ricardo Santana Jr. for helping him grow as a rider, adding he’s “probably about 50 times better” than when he started. Santana has been among Steve Asmussen’s go-to riders for several years.

“Lot better hands,” Keith J. Asmussen said. “I feel like I rate a lot better than I did. Honestly, even on top of that, finishing. But it had just come with a lack of repetitions. First time I rode, I don’t think I’d worked a hundred horses out of the gate yet. It’s what, 20 times past that now?”

Steve Asmussen collected 63 victories as a jockey before weight forced him to quit riding and turn to training in the mid-1980s. Keith J. Asmussen, 5-10, has his eyes constantly on the scales, too, already having waived his apprentice weight allowance.

“That’s kind of why the rides have been sporadic,” he said.

Asmussen is named on five horses, all for Steve Asmussen, over the first three days at Oaklawn. All seven of the jockey’s victories have come for his father. No pressure, the jockey said.

“I love the intensity of this barn,” Asmussen said. “It’s the expectations. I don’t think there’s any other way to do it. Everything matters.”

Asmussen said he plans to generate additional business by riding for other trainers at Oaklawn, or possibly Sam Houston Race Park in Houston, which opens Jan. 6. In other words, he’s crunching numbers for a living. Just not the way one might expect.

“I’m a jockey now,” Asmussen said. “Full time.”

Harr Returns Looking to Break Another Record

Jockey Kelsi Harr

Photo Credit: Coady Photography

After becoming the first female jockey in Oaklawn history to surpass $1 million in purse earnings at a meet last season, Kelsi Harr is poised to break another record during the 2022-2023 meeting that begins Friday.

Based on statistics from Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization, Harr has amassed $2,639,654 in career purse earnings at Oaklawn. Cindy Murphy holds the Oaklawn record for career purse earnings by a female jockey ($2,792,644).

“That’s just crazy, too, because she was an amazing rider,” Harr said. “I’ve just got to credit the times changing and the money being better now because she definitely won races and was a good rider. To even be classified anywhere near her is amazing to me.”

Harr, 30, began riding at Oaklawn in 2019 and has increased her mounts and purse earnings each season. She was Oaklawn’s leading apprentice jockey in 2020 with 11 victories and rode 18 winners at the 2021-2022 meeting, with her mounts earning $1,187,724 in purses.

Murphy, riding mostly as Cindy Noll, recorded 183 victories at Oaklawn in 1997-2006. She remains Oaklawn’s runaway leader among female riders for career victories. She also set a single-season Oaklawn record for victories by a female rider (47) in 1999. Harr has 39 victories in her Oaklawn career.

“I’ve met her, but that’s about it,” Harr said. “Wasn’t really paying attention to many people when I started this journey. I was just trying to be on the backside and groom and hotwalk. Exercise ride is all I really wanted to do.”

Harr is named on 14 horses over the first three days of racing at Oaklawn, including 13 for her fiancée, owner/trainer Robert N. Cline. One entrant for Cline, Arkansas-bred star Bandit Point, marked Harr’s first career mount and winner June 17, 2018, at Canterbury Park. Bandit Point is scheduled to tackle open company in Saturday’s 10th race, a $104,000 allowance sprint that Cline is using as a prep for Arkansas-bred stakes later in the meeting. The 7-year-old chestnut, Harr’s all-time favorite horse, has $510,363 in career earnings.

“Bandit’s doing really good,” Harr said. “Excited to have him back.”

A native of tiny Slovak, Ark., about 45 miles east of Little Rock, Harr also gallops and works horses for Cline and is a longtime exercise rider at Oaklawn for trainer Al Cates of Hot Springs.

Other female riders named on horses opening weekend are 2021-2022 Oaklawn champion apprentice Chel-c Bailey, Kylee Jordan, newcomer Mickaelle Michel and apprentice Lindsey Hebert. Bailey is now a journeyman.

The French Connection

French jockey and world traveler Mickaelle Michel is scheduled to make her Oaklawn debut in Friday’s seventh race, a $104,000 allowance sprint, aboard Backyard Money for maybe her biggest supporter, Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

Michel, 27, was previously based in Kentucky and has five victories since she began riding in the United States in late May at Churchill Downs.

“I’m freelance, but I rode a lot for Mr. Lukas before I came here,” Michel said. “I tried to meet every trainer at Churchill Downs. I knew he was one of the biggest trainers over there, so I just tried to speak with him and things went really good. We spoke a lot about what he had done and what I had done. He gave me few to breeze and some to ride and I showed him that I was really motivated and wanted to do something special.”

Among the horses Michel began working for Lukas was Secret Oath, the 2022 multiple Oaklawn stakes winner/Kentucky Oaks champion. Michel also began securing mounts for Lukas in the afternoon.

“She’s been riding for a few big trainers, so she’s got names needed behind her,” said Michel’s agent, Becky Esch.

Michel said she’s ridden in 12 countries, won races in eight and stakes in four. Her resume includes being France’s champion apprentice in 2018 and, in 2020, winning 30 races in Japan and a Group 2 event in Italy.

“Every track is different in every country,” Michel said. “I never rode on dirt before going to Japan. You don’t have a track like this in Europe, so I had to learn from that. I’ve learned a lot.”

Michel is named on three horses, all for Lukas, during the first three days of the Oaklawn meeting. Michel rode Backyard Money to a fourth-place finish in her last start, a first-level allowance sprint, Nov. 20 at Churchill Downs.

Michel has had 96 mounts in the United States.

Finish Lines

Steve Asmussen enters the 2022-2023 meeting with 820 career victories in Hot Springs, 48 shy of surpassing the late Bob Holthus (867) as the winningest trainer in Oaklawn history. Asmussen, at some point during the Oaklawn meeting that ends May 6, also will become the first trainer to reach 10,000 career victories in North America. He entered Thursday with 9,957, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. … Stanley Roberts, the semi-retired/retired owner/trainer from Forrest City, Ark., is scheduled to send out Mo Wanna Go in Friday’s ninth race, which would mark his first starter since April 19, 2020, at Oaklawn. Roberts’ Oaklawn stable at the last two meetings was run by his daughter, trainer Sherry Rhea. Roberts has 957 career training victories, including 193 at Oaklawn. … There are 10 races Saturday, including the inaugural $150,000 Ring the Bell Stakes and the $150,000 Mistletoe Stakes. First post is 12:30 p.m. (Central). … Full siblings Will’s Secret (Mistletoe) and Ben Diesel (race 10 allowance), both for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, are among 113 horses entered Saturday.