JONATHAN QUAYLE HIGGINS COLUMN 12 AUGUST

Trainer Steve Asmussen set a new North American record for victories by a trainer last Saturday when Stellar Tap won the fifth race at Saratoga Race Course. Asmussen’s 9,435 winners as of Sunday morning came from 45,854 starts. He’d also recorded 7,649 second-place finishes and 6,523 thirds, meaning his horses hit the board 51.5 percent of the time.

The 55-year-old Hall Of Famer has purposefully pursued this very goal from the day he saddled his first winner in Birmingham, Alibama, in 1987 and now he has set his sights on the world record held by a Peruvian named Juan Suarez, who has trained about 300 winners more. He is still active, but winning at only half Asmussen’s rate.

Beyond that, Assmussen said, his greatest desire is to win the G1 Kentucky Derby, in which he is 0-23, and then to simply keep winning. There will be no slowing down. “The beautiful thing about this is we feel we’re in the middle of it. It’s never been better. The stable is very strong right now. We have some outstanding prospects that should continue to win.”

One has to agree that it’s only a matter of time before he gets his KY Derby breakthrough. Asmussen has trained three Horses of the Year — Curlin, the wonderful filly Rachel Alexandra, and Gun Runner. He’s won the Preakness Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic twice and has the Belmont Stakes on his roll of honour.

Not many know that Assmussen started his career as a jockey, riding only a handful of winners before he shifted his focus to training. “I’m 6’5, and people don’t believe I started as a jockey. I have to show them photos,” said the big man with the wavy grey hair who won’t be out of place in the WWE ring either.

Asmussen has always credited his closely-knit family of horsemen- and women for his success. “I feel that my training career is an extension of my parents and their horsemanship and work ethic,” he’s noted a few times.

His father, Keith, is a retired jockey and his mother Marilyn is a trainer who became the first woman to win a major quarter horse race with Vespero in the 1978 Kansas Futurity. They now operate El Primero Training Center and the Asmussen Horse Center, a breeding and sales operation, both in Laredo.

Steve Asmussen told Bleacher Report: “It was the perfect storm to be the youngest son of Keith and Marilyn Asmussen. With the way they implemented their tools, they were an inspiration to me. To be able to do it is one thing. To be willing to work so hard for it is another. From an unbelievably young age for both me and my brother Cash, they taught us to respect the horse and the opportunity each one gave you. With them, that never wavered.”

Cash, himself, became a Hall-Of-Fame rider who won major races all over the world and now Assmussen’s son, Keith James, is also a jockey.

“It’s impossible to put into words what horse racing means to me and my whole family and to all the employees,” Asmussen said. “They’re family and they know so and are treated as such.”

TDN’s Bill Finley wrote: “There is no other trainer like Asmussen when it comes to the diversity of his stable. That he still races at places like Remington, Lone Star, Delta Downs and Sam Houston is a major reason he has been able to compile the numbers he has.”

Finley predicted: “There’s no reason to suggest that he couldn’t have as many as 15,000 wins by his 70th birthday. With fewer and fewer races being run each year, he is sure to set records that will never be broken.”

Asmussen, admitting to racing at every open race track in the United States search of his next winner, countered the suggestion that racing at more venues makes winning easier and said: “For anybody to think it’s easy to win races at lesser places ought to try it – jump right in. We’ll celebrate this as a family for quite some time. It’s a wonderful feeling to achieve this, and to be surrounded by people that love you.”

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ONE BAD HOMBRE: Jorge Navarro’s looking at five years in the Can.

In not such wholesome news, former trainer Jorge Navarro admitted in federal court in Manhattan to involvement in a conspiracy to administer performance-enhancing drugs to horses, in order to win more prize money at racetracks.

“I was the organiser for a criminal activity that involved five or more participants. I coordinated the administration of non-FDA approved drugs that were misbranded or adulterated to horses under my care,” he said a statement to the court.

Navarro also admitted that he conspired with veterinarians to produce fake bills that hid what these drugs actually were from horse owners and also to deceive and defraud track officials and regulators.

Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil accepted Navarro’s guilty plea and said: “As he admitted today, Navarro, a licensed trainer and the purported ‘winner’ of major races across the world, was in fact a reckless fraudster whose veneer of success relied on the systematic abuse of the animals under his control,” US attorney Audrey Strauss said in a statement.

Navarro now faces a maximum prison term of five years when he gets sentenced in December. He has agreed to pay $25.9m in restitution, reflecting winnings tied to his administration of illegal substances.  – IRC.

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