After being enshrined in the National Racing Hall of Fame in Saratoga last summer, trainer Steve Asmussen is back this year with a strong stable, looking to add to the accolades on his Hall of Fame plaque that hangs across the street from Saratoga Race Course.
Asmussen has accumulated over 7,700 wins in his illustrious training career, including many triumphs at Saratoga. Most notably, the two Hall of Fame horses that he’s trained, Curlin and Rachel Alexandra, each won the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga in back-to-back editions (2008 and 2009), helping Asmussen win the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer each of those years.
Asmussen’s barn this year has a mix of top juvenile prospects and proven veteran older horses pointing to the 2017 Saratoga meet led by one of the world’s top dirt males in training, the multiple Grade 1 winner Gun Runner.
Even though Asmussen’s resume has those two Woodward wins (among many other Saratoga graded stakes victories), he’ll try to capture his first win in the Grade 1 Whitney on Saturday, August 5, as he points Gun Runner to this prestigious race. Preparations are going well for the Whitney following Gun Runner’s arrival to the grounds on June 27.
“We’re right on schedule,” said Asmussen in front of his Saratoga barn on July 7. “The Whitney’s very good timing for him. He’s settled right in, and I sure like the way he looks over the racetrack right now.”
Gun Runner has recorded two workouts over Saratoga’s Oklahoma training track since arriving in upstate New York, including a bullet (best out of 8 workers) 5-furlong workout on July 9. He recently visited the Saratoga main track, too.
From Asmussen’s assessment, Gun Runner came out of his dominant front-end Grade 1 Stephen Foster win on June 17 at Churchill Downs in fine fettle. That effort showed that he was none the worse for wear since returning to the United States after a round-trip visit to the Middle East for the Group 1 Dubai World Cup in March, where he finished a game second place behind Arrogate, the Longines top-ranked horse in the world.
In Gun Runner’s lone career start at Saratoga, he also finished behind Arrogate with a steady third-place finish in last year’s Grade 1 Travers. In that race, Gun Runner drew the far outside 13 post in a packed field and was wide on both turns. His ability to beat 10 other top 3-year olds in the “Mid-Summer Derby” is an indication that he may have a liking for the Saratoga surface.
“I’m very comfortable with him up here at Saratoga (after) spending last summer up here,” said Asmussen.
Arrogate is not expected to ship in from his California home for the Whitney, but trainer Bob Baffert may be sending other top older males, including the Grade 1 Met Mile winner Mor Spirit and multiple graded stakes winners Cupid and Collected, to contest Gun Runner. Other top older males possibly targeting the Whitney include Keen Ice and Shaman Ghost, both of whom have won Grade 1 races at Saratoga.
To go along with Gun Runner’s place atop the older male division, Asmussen has a top older female on the grounds as well in Terra Promessa. Asmussen expects to get Terra Promessa’s Saratoga meet started on Sunday, July 30, in the Grade 3 Shuvee Handicap.
“She has a high cruising speed and she’s a very long-strided filly,” said Asmussen. “(Jockey) Jose (Ortiz) fits her really well. She’s run some brilliant races for him and he’s expected to ride her back in the Shuvee, and we feel good about that race.”
Keeping the services of Jose Ortiz, who won the 2016 Saratoga jockey title, is a plus for Terra Promessa. She’s run two top races since adding Ortiz starting with the Grade 1 Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park in mid-April, where she lost to the 2015 Eclipse Champion 3-year-old Stellar Wind by only 1 1/4 lengths, almost holding her off late. Ortiz then piloted Terra Promessa to a dominant 7 1/2-length, gate-to-wire win in the Grade 3 Allaire Dupont Distaff at Pimlico in her most recent start.
“With Stellar Wind being a champion, it’s quite the measuring stick, but for her to rebound with a visually easier, impressive win in the Distaff at Pimlico, we were very pleased to see her bounce back off such a tough race in the Apple Blossom with a solid victory,” said Asmussen.
Terra Promessa is sired by the two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, one of Asmussen’s most successful trainees, so she holds a special place for Asmussen.
“She’s making her dad proud,” he said. “She’s a daughter of Curlin who’s continuously gotten better with age and has put in some very good runs this year.”
The 2-Year-Old Watch
Asmussen always has strong 2-year-old prospects for Saratoga, and 2017 is no different,with a few precocious fillies and colts targeting the meet’s early juvenile stakes.
Buy Sell Hold has been aiming towards the Grade 3 Schuylerville for juvenile fillies on Saratoga opening day, Friday, July 21. Undefeated in two lifetime starts, the filly by first-crop sire Violence beat male rivals in her last start, winning the 5-furlong ungraded Kentucky Juvenile Stakes at Churchill Downs on May 4 by a neck. Only 14 days earlier, she won her debut at 4 1/2 furlongs at Keeneland on April 20, defeating a field of fillies by 4 1/2 lengths. She will need to stretch out for the Schuylerville’s 6-furlong distance here.
“She’s got plenty of talent and we’re very pleased with her first two races,” said Asmussen. “Obviously, it would be a great way to start off the meet if she could have success in the Schuylerville.”
Asmussen won the Schuylerville in 3 of the last 10 years with Brazen Persuasion in 2013, Hot Dixie Chick in 2009, and Jardin in 2008.
On the second day of the meet, Asmussen will target Direct Dial to the Grade 3 Sanford for juveniles. The Texas-bred son of Too Much Bling debuted impressively at Keeneland in late April, drawing off to win by 7 3/4 lengths as the odds-on favorite. Last out in the non-graded Tremont at Belmont on June 8, he finished with a strong second after setting a fast pace.
“We feel really good about Direct Dial for the Sanford,” said Asmussen. “He’s a horse that showed a lot of talent winning at Keeneland first time out. He was second in the Tremont on a day when I think speed was having quite a bit of trouble, on Thursday of Belmont (Stakes) week. He put away the favorite, but was unable to hold everybody off. He’s worked very well up here in his first breeze and he has a very good opportunity (in the Sanford).”
Both Buy Sell Hold and Direct Dial have been working in company, putting in 5-furlong workouts over the Saratoga main track on July 9 after previously recording matching bullet 4-furlong work (best out of 8 workers) over the Oklahoma training track on July 2.
Asmussen is high on Direct Dial, but the possible top emerging star of his juveniles may be Copper Bullet. In three lifetime starts, the son of More Than Ready only has one win, breaking his maiden in his second career start by 8 lengths on May 25 at Churchill Downs, but the young colt has plenty of upside.
Off that strong maiden win, Asmussen ran Copper Bullet in the Grade 3 Bashford Manor at Churchill to end June. After getting off to a slow start, Copper Bullet darted up the rail on the backstretch and took the lead under jockey Florent Geroux, but then steadied abruptly at the 1/4 pole during the 6-furlong race. Once he steadied, Copper Bullet fought back showing his gameness, fanning out to the five-path into the stretch, re-rallying and ending up placing second, only 1 1/2 lengths behind impressive winner Ten City.
“He had a very eventful trip in the Bashford Manor on closing night at Churchill,” said Asmussen. “He just came up (to Saratoga) and has been at the racetrack here for a couple of days. He looks really good, and he’s a very talented 2-year old with quite a bit of a future. He possibly would show up for the (Grade 2) Saratoga Special, but no sooner than that.”
Another juvenile training at Saratoga for Asmussen is recent Churchill Downs maiden-winning colt Baffin for first-crop sire Justin Phillip, an Asmussen trainee that won the 2013 Grade 1 Vanderbilt.
Asmussen Saratoga Barn
Overall, Asmussen has 22 horses (as of July 7) stabled at Saratoga, including the Kentucky Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee, who has put in two workouts over the Oklahoma training track. Lookin At Lee’s next start is to be determined.
Other Asmussen trainees that have recently worked out at Saratoga include graded stakes winner Carve, 3-year old sprinter Hard Scramble, 5-year old sprinter Bayerd, and turf sprinter Hard Candy.
With a barn of top horses pointing to this year’s meet, there are many more Saratoga memories for Asmussen to make, to go along with the lifetime memory of making the Hall of Fame last year.