With Curlin’s big race just days away, they’re keeping a close watch on the comings and goings of visitors and strangers around trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn next to the Oklahoma training track.
One person who could probably waltz right in there unnoticed is John “Jocko” DeBlasio, a retired Schenectady firefighter who resembles Asmussen so closely that he recently shaved off his goatee and cut his hair short so that people wouldn’t think that he’s trying to be an imposter.
“As far as a major, visible figure — in this case in the world of thoroughbred racing — he’s absolutely as close as anybody I’ve ever seen,” Gazette handicapper Mark Cusano said. “Maybe sometimes the term ‘dead ringer’ is overused. I don’t think it is in this case.”
Cusano should know.
As the host of “Down the Stretch” on the OTB network, he has interviewed Asmussen many times.
That wasn’t enough to keep him from being fooled when he crossed paths with DeBlasio on the Saratoga Race Course backstretch in 2003, shortly after Asmussen’s filly, Lady Tak, won the Test stakes.
“I hate to tell you, but I fooled Mark Cusano,” DeBlasio said. “I walked down the backstretch, and as I was walking on, he turns around — this is hysterical — and he goes, ‘Beautiful job with Lady Tak, what a wonderful job training her.’ I said, ‘Thank you.’ I just looked at him, befuddled. He said, ‘She ran wonderfully.’ I said, ‘I don’t think I am who you think I am.’
“He says, ‘Who are you?’ I said, ‘I’m John DeBlasio, I’m a fireman in Schenectady.’ It was hysterical. Oh, my god.”
DeBlasio, who was a firefighter for 25 years before retiring in January 2007, has been coming to Saratoga for many more years than Asmussen has, and sets up shop with his friends outside the clubhouse just about every day.
As Asmussen has increasingly found himself in the public eye because of the exploits of Curlin and other stars of his barn, like Pyro and J Be K, DeBlasio has been approached more and more by people who believe him to be the trainer.
“I have been stopped everywhere. I’m here almost everyday, which I’ve done for years,” De
Blasio said. “In fact, him and I, he was coming out of the winner’s circle, one of my buddies stopped him, and when he saw me, he came over, we put our arms around each other and he snapped the picture, both of us laughing.”
Only once has DeBlasio chosen to let the game play out longer than the initial double take.
Earlier in the meet, before he shaved off his goatee, he was leaving the backstretch in his car when he was stopped by a man pulling in who rolled down his window to ask a question of “Steven.”
“Now, 99 percent of the time I go, ‘I’m not him, I’m someone else,’ but I just got a kick out of it this time, and I said, ‘Yeah, pretty good,” DeBlasio said. “He says, ‘What do you got good [on the card]?’ I go, ‘What do you got good?’ He says, ‘I’ve got one at Del Mar, we’re using the massage with him. He’s really live.’
DeBlasio doesn’t even have to be at the track to get the Steve treatment.
He was on a cruise to the Caribbean to celebrate his daughter’s college graduation when he noticed a woman staring at him.
“You would be flabbergasted. You go downtown. It happens a lot. A lot,” DeBlasio said. “I was almost in Bermuda. This woman is staring at me. Finally, she comes over and says, ‘I don’t want you to get the wrong impression, but you look just like a famous trainer.’ I said, ‘Steve Asmussen,’ and she said, ‘How’d you know?’ ‘Because I get it all the time.’
“She was involved with breeding in Kentucky. She told me if I came down to Keeneland, she’d get me a box.”
“I would’ve sworn that he was Steve Asmussen, and I’ve interviewed Steve several times,” Cusano said. “We laugh about it all the time now, everytime I see him.”
The resemblance is harder to see since DeBlasio got the clippers out.
And Asmussen, who is expected to arrive in Saratoga tonight or
Friday, will likely be wearing a suit and tie when he saddles Curlin for the Grade I Woodward on Saturday.
So if you see someone matching that description, feel free to say, “Hi, Steve, good luck.”
Maybe it will be him.
And maybe it won’t.