Last year, Hall-of-Fame trainer Steve Asmussen arrived at Saratoga in late June with one of the best horses in training. Coming off of a win in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster Handicap, hopes were high that Gun Runner would continue moving forward.
What ensued was a historical run of four more Grade 1 wins in a row, starting with the Whitney and the Woodward at Saratoga before continuing in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and the Pegasus World Cup, which garnered him Horse of the Year accolades.
This year, Asmussen doesn’t have a trainee vying for Horse of the Year, but he has possible champions in a few different divisions if everything breaks right, starting with some major targets at Saratoga.
Led by the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks winner Midnight Bisou in the 3-year-old filly division and the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap (Met Mile) winner Bee Jersey in the older male division, along with developing 3-year-old colt Tenfold and a multitude of juveniles with stakes plans, Asmussen’s barn is loaded once again with top runners that will be dangerous in the 40-day meet’s biggest races.
Strike of Midnight
After finishing third in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, owners Allen Racing and Bloom Racing Stable transferred Midnight Bisou from the barn of California-based trainer Bill Spawr. With the nation’s top 3-year-old filly races occurring on the east coast during the summer before the Breeders’ Cup runs at Churchill Downs in November, the Asmussen barn is primed to bring her to the winner’s circles in New York and Kentucky that they have graced so many times.
It didn’t take much time for her new trainer to break through; her first start out of her new barn was a romping six-length victory in the Grade 2 Mother Goose Stakes at Belmont on June 30.
“She came out of the race in great shape,” Asmussen said outside his Saratoga barn on July 6. “She’s been to the track for a few days here at Saratoga. She came up the morning after the (Mother Goose). She will be nominated to the (Grade 1) Coaching Club (America Oaks on July 22) and we’ll see how we’re doing.”
If Midnight Bisou runs in the Coaching Club, it would be off of just three weeks’ rest, but Asmussen believes so far that the Mother Goose wasn’t too taxing on her.
A rematch with Kentucky Oaks victor Monomoy Girl in the Coaching Club would be an anticipated showdown on Saratoga’s opening weekend. Midnight Bisou had a very wide trip in the Kentucky Oaks, so a second shot to take down the division leader would be welcomed.
Summer Place to Bee?
Bee Jersey’s Met Mile win by a nose over two-time New York-bred Horse of the Year Mind Your Biscuits was one of the most exciting races so far in 2018.
Asmussen isn’t going to push his top older horse this summer, though. The Met Mile was a “Win & You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, so with his ticket already punched, Asmussen will pick his spots leading up to that final 2018 target.
“I’ll discus with (owner) Mr. (Charles) Fipke,” said Asmussen. “(Bee Jersey) had his first breeze here (at Saratoga on July 2) after the Met Mile. We’ll probably just take it easy with him for a while. We’re not looking for him to run early in the meet, if he runs at the meet at all. The Met Mile was the focus of the first half of the year for him, and at this stage, (we’ll) most likely get him back on his feet, freshen him up a bit, and hopefully, he’s as sharp for the Breeders’ Cup (Dirt) Mile as he was for the Met Mile.”
Following that win, there was speculation that Bee Jersey could target the 7-furlong Grade 1 Forego Stakes, part of the Travers Stakes undercard on August 25. Even though that remains an option, Asmussen will need to determine whether cutting him back is the correct next step, as his final 2018 target is a one-turn mile at Churchill.
Year-end goals may be set for Bee Jersey, but Asmussen’s multitude of 3-year-olds will have many options in the coming months.
At the beginning of 2018, Asmussen had several promising runners on the Kentucky Derby trail, but only one made the Derby gate – Combatant, who finished a disappointing 18th. Asmussen will charge into the second half of 2018 with a different horse leading the way: the Preakness third-place finisher Tenfold.
Had everything broken right in the Preakness, Tenfold might have defeated the eventual Triple Crown winner Justify, and his performance in only his fourth career start gave the barn a lot of hope for the future. A quick three-week turnaround for the Belmont Stakes turned into an unfruitful fifth-place finish after a troubled trip, though.
“It was an eventful trip (in the Belmont),” Asmussen said. “It was not a dream trip for a 1 1/2-mile race, obviously.”
In only his fifth career start and as a still-developing son of Curlin, the best is yet to come for Tenfold, according to his conditioner.
“I love who he is physically and mentally,” Asmussen said. “I still think his best is ahead of him. He’s just a beautiful horse and he moves so good. For him to take the Preakness and the Belmont as well as he did, I think it just shows his quality. And he’s looked so good on the race track up here. I have a tremendous amount of faith in him.”
With that much belief in his top 3-year-old, a march toward the Travers may be on Tenfold’s horizon, if he’s able to show signs of that promise in a prep at Saratoga. Tenfold is eligible for the $100,000 Curlin Stakes on July 27, an event restricted to horses that haven’t won a graded stakes race at a distance of over 1 mile. That race is a possibility, but Asmussen may be thinking bigger.
“We’re well aware of the fact that he’s eligible for the Curlin still,” Asmussen said. “The (Grade 2) Jim Dandy is the same week (on July 28), and honestly, I’m leaning to the Jim Dandy.”
The Jim Dandy may also feature the Grade 2 Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso, along with the Preakness runner-up Bravazo. Belmont Stakes third-place finisher Hofburg is another developing colt targeting either the Curlin or Jim Dandy. A win (or even a strong finish) in the Jim Dandy would set Tenfold up for a strong run at the Travers.
Asmussen always has a slew of strong juveniles pointing to the key “baby races” and top stakes races at Saratoga, and this year is no different.
The headliner in the group right now may be the impressive debut maiden winner Bano Solo, a dominant winner by three lengths going 5 furlongs at Churchill Downs on June 23. The son of freshman sire and two-time Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Goldencents, Bano Solo may be targeting the Grade 3 Sanford on July 21 going 6 furlongs on the dirt. Bano Solo threw down a bullet best-of-22 works going 5 furlongs in 1:01.45 over the Oklahoma Training Track at Saratoga on July 9 in preparation for a possible Sanford try.
“We feel very strongly about our 2-year-olds right now,” Asmussen said. “I will nominate multiple (horses) to the Sanford.”
Another Asmussen nominee to the Sanford will be the Grade 3 Bashford Manor winner Sir Truebadour. Having won that early juvenile stakes at Churchill Downs going 6 furlongs on June 30, the son of More Than Ready would need to run back in just three weeks’ time, if he’s entered in the Sanford. Also coming off of a trip to Belmont Park, where he finished fourth in the $150,000 Tremont Stakes on June 8, it’s possible that Sir Truebadour will target a later race in the Saratoga meet.
“Sir Truebadour, most likely having three races and traveling twice already, will pass the Sanford,” Asmussen said. “He’s a nice horse. He reminds me so much of his brother, Regally Ready. He was so pliable.”
Asmussen used similar scheduling last year when Copper Bullet parlayed a runner-up finish in the Bashford Manor into a romping win in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special, so that may be a target race for Sir Truebadour.
On the juvenile filly side of the barn, Asmussen has an impressive maiden in Lady Apple, who ran second, losing by a neck, in the $150,000 Astoria Stakes at Belmont Park on June 7. She recently worked out at Saratoga, breezing 5 furlongs over the Oklahoma in 1:01.90 on July 8, in preparation for a possible run in the Grade 3 Schuylerville Stakes on Saratoga Opening Day, July 20.
“I think she really ran well (in the Astoria),” Asmussen said. “Even though she’s a maiden, I’m going to nominate her to the Schuylerville and possibly run her. She’s a Curlin filly that’s getting better all the time.”
Asmussen has won the Schuylerville in three of the past 10 years with Brazen Persuasion in 2013, Hot Dixie Chick in 2009, and Jardin in 2008. He will look to possibly add another winner to that growing list this summer.
With his esteemed horsemanship and a barn full of developing horses coming into top form, Asmussen will have plenty of chances this summer to engrave a few more stakes wins into his plaque hanging up across the street in the Hall of Fame.