SARATOGA SPRINGS — It all came together for Steve Asmussen on Saturday.
When he finally broke the record, with Stellar Tap in the fifth race at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday, the confluence of connections and circumstances made it pretty much the perfect way for the Hall of Fame trainer to take over sole possession of the highest win total all-time in career victories.
Ridden by Asmussen’s first-call rider, Ricardo Santana Jr., Stellar Tap, a 2-year-old gray son of Tapit, rolled to victory, followed by a joyous celebration by the Asmussen family, video congratulations from his parents in Texas and the presentation by NYRA of a lawn jockey commemorating his 9,446th victory.
“It was meant to be, wasn’t it,” the beaming Asmussen said. “With a son of Tapit, for Winchell [Thoroughbreds], L and N partners, a horse who came through the training center at Laredo, at Saratoga on Whitney Day?
“That’s a pretty good target, for 9,446 away, isn’t it? So that’s what dreams are made of.”
On Friday, Asmussen tied the late Dale Baird for the all-time North American record by winning with his only entry at Saratoga, followed by a win at Ellis Park in Hendersonville, Kentucky.
On Saturday, after one of his horses scratched, he still had 12 horses entered in 11 races at four different tracks, and the first one to go to post was Stellar Tap.
That saved Asmussen — and the rest of the racing world — from having to sweat out when and where No. 9,446 would happen.
Stellar Tap is co-owned by Ron Winchell of Winchell Thoroughbreds, one of Asmussen’s long-time clients who campaigned Gun Runner, the 2017 Horse of the Year who swept the Whitney and Woodward at Saratoga.
Winchell also owned Tapit, Stellar Tap’s sire, and the colt got his initial instruction as a baby at the training center run by Asmussen’s parents, Keith and Marilyn.
Asmussen won his first race as a head trainer and was inducted to the Racing Hall of Fame in 2016 while assembling a career that stayed in touch with the lower levels of racing even as he won some of the biggest stakes on the calendar with some of racing’s biggest stars.
Baird, who died in a crash in 2007 that is believed to be the result of high winds blowing over the horse trailer he was towing, won most of his races on the lesser circuits.
“I read a beautiful article [about his record chase], and they [Baird’s family] were unbelievably complimentary,” Asmussen said. “I know how hard it is to win at any level because I race at all levels, and there’s no volunteers to lose. What an amazing accomplishment he had, and unfortunately he had an untimely passing, but nothing but respect for anybody who can win.”
Six of Asmussen’s 9,446 wins were supplied by the filly Rachel Alexandra, who won the Preakness and beat older males as a 3-year-old in the Woodward at Saratoga on her way to Horse of the Year.
“I think there’s horses that got you to another level,” he said. “Valid Expectations was our first graded stakes winner. And he was better than we were. He was capable of carrying what we didn’t know.
“Lady Tak, when she won the Ballerina here, was our first millionaire, and the races she won here at Saratoga were as good as it gets. Of course, Curlin, when he won the Preakness, your first classic victory, and the Dubai World Cup … he could do things that we couldn’t do for ourselves.
“Then to be associated with Rachel, she was a myth, almost, as far as how she carried herself. Of course, Gun Runner, and a career that crescendoed as beautiful as it gets.”
Asked what his 1986 self would have told his 2021 self about attaining this record, Asmussen joked, “‘I can’t believe it took you so long.'”
Saturday was no time to rest in laurels, with so many more goals and achievements still waiting out there.
“Believe in yourself, and go do it,” he said. “It’s unbelievably rewarding, and humbling at the same time. But just don’t give up.
“I’d love to share what happened today with family, and the circumstances couldn’t be any better, and we will enjoy that greatly. But I’m still oh-for-20 in the Derby, and don’t plan on leaving it at that. We’ve got plenty out there to do, there’s no doubt about it.”
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