Steve Asmussen — who this year became Churchill Downs’ all-time win leader and only the second trainer to achieve 9,000 career victories — is the 2020 recipient of the Louisville-based Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners’ Warner L. Jones Jr. Horseman of the Year Award.
The award recognizes individuals for outstanding contributions to Kentucky racing and sharing the passion exemplified by Jones, who spent 50 years on the Churchill Downs board, including eight as chairman during the iconic track’s resurgence. Warner Jones — the first and so far only breeder of a Kentucky Derby, Kentucky Oaks and Breeders’ Cup winner — was the inaugural award winner in 1988, six years before his death.
“Everything my whole family has is because of horse racing,” Asmussen said upon being informed he was the award recipient. “I won the Warner L. Jones Horseman of the Year Award – that has a beautiful ring to it. For anybody to be involved in horse racing, I think the greatest compliment you can be given is to be considered a horseman. It is what we strive for. It is something I, as well as my whole family, would be proud to be acknowledged as. The list of past recipients is beyond impressive and a group that I’m very proud to be a part of. That is cool.”
The Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners is an educational and social organization dedicated to the betterment of racing in the state. Membership is open not only to owners but anyone interested in the sport, including prospective owners.
Because of the COVID-19 health crisis, the KTO was forced to cancel its traditional November awards gala, with Asmussen and the other 2020 KTO award winners to be feted when circumstances permit an in-person event in 2021. KTO president Loren Hebel-Osborne said it was important to still recognize an individual for exceptional work in horse racing.
“As we all know this racing game ebbs and flows; we do not want Covid 19 to further penalize any members or racing entities who may otherwise be having a banner year in racing,” Hebel-Osborne said. “We weren’t about to let Covid-19 cancel one more thing. In fact, I would say to win an award under these circumstances really shows extraordinary skill! We want to celebrate, elevate and honor these accomplishments especially in this most challenging environment.
“Steve is the embodiment of what the Warner L. Jones Jr. Horseman of the Year Award was created to recognize. Not just his record-setting numbers while playing at all levels of the game but just passing the eyeball test with how his horses always seem to glow good health and being well-cared for.”
Born into a horse-racing family as the younger son of Keith and Marilyn Asmussen, Steve spent parts of three seasons as a jockey before he returned from an injury too big to ride. He worked as an assistant trainer to his mother before starting his own stable with a handful of horses in 1986, winning with his 12th starter: Victory’s Halo in a $2,600 maiden race at New Mexico’s Ruidoso Downs.
Through Dec. 2, Asmussen had won 9,104 races, trailing only the late Dale Baird’s 9,445. Those victories include training Horses of the Year Curlin (2007-2008), Rachel Alexandra (2009) and Gun Runner (2017), as well as winning the 2007 (Curlin) and 2009 (Rachel Alexandra) Preakness and the 2016 Belmont Stakes (Creator). His seven Breeders’ Cup triumphs include the Classic with Curlin in 2007 and Gun Runner in 2017, with Curlin also taking the $5 million Dubai World Cup in 2008 and Gun Runner the $16 million Pegasus World Cup to cap his career in 2018. Rachel Alexandra became the only 3-year-old filly to beat older males in winning Saratoga’s historic Whitney Handicap in 2009.
Asmussen’s more than $342.7 million in career purse earnings are second all-time to Todd Pletcher’s $397 million, according to Equibase statistics. He was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2016. Racing secretaries everywhere appreciate how much he comes to run — no one comes close to his more than 44,000 career starts.
Asmussen’s 650 victories in 2009 are a record and mark one of four years in which he’s surpassed 500 wins. He is the all-time win-leader at Lone Star Park and Remington Park in addition to Churchill Downs, where he replaced former Warner Jones recipient Dale Romans with the track record with victory No. 738 under the Twin Spires on June 12 this year. At Kentucky tracks, Asmussen has won a record 24 meet training titles at Churchill Downs as well as three apiece at Keeneland and Ellis Park.
On top of it, Asmussen is also an owner of note, his horses having won almost 1,200 races and more than $18.7 million dating to 2000, according to Equibase.