By Ray Paulick
Steve Asmussen and Todd Pletcher have a lot in common: both were born into hands-on racing families; they have incredible work ethics but also maintain a family life away from the track; they've won Eclipse Awards (Pletcher has four, Asmussen is odds-on to get his second next month); and both are destined for future induction into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame.
They also have more grey hairs than the average man of their age (Asmussen is 44, Pletcher is 42). That may come from the pressures of maintaining massive Thoroughbred stables involving high-profile owners and dealing with problems of multiple operations in different states, subject to varying rules and regulations. Both Asmussen and Pletcher have had well-publicized medication violations in recent years.
Going into the final day of 2009, Asmussen started a whopping 2,927 runners, winning 648 races and $21,821,225. He's won 21 American Graded Stakes with 13 different horses for 11 different ownership groups.
Pletcher has “only” had 1,104 starts, winning 237 races and $15,394,111, ranking him second behind Asmussen in the money-won category. He's won 24 American Graded Stakes with 15 different horses for 10 different owners. He leads in both of those categories among all trainers.
Though I concede that Asmussen will win the Eclipse Award, in large part because of the heroics of Horse of the Year contender Rachel Alexandra, I believe Pletcher has had the better year overall. His average earnings per start are $13,943. nearly double Asmussen's $7,455. And his percentage of American Graded Stakes wins from all starts is 2.17%, three times higher than Asmussen's percentage of 0.71%.
The biggest difference is that Asmussen has shown that he loves winning at all levels, from the bottom of the claiming ranks to Grade 1 races. Maintaining a large number of claiming horses weights down his average earnings per start and percentage of AGS winners from starts.
What is truly amazing about both men is their ability to juggle, to keep so many owners happy and in their stable year after year, and to make each one of them feel as though they are important to their operations.
Cot Campbell, the owner of Dogwood Stable, was one of Pletcher's earliest supporters when the son of trainer J.J. Pletcher left as an assistant to D. Wayne Lukas and formed a public stable in the mid-1990s. Campbell admits to being a bit tough on trainers, especially if things aren't going well, and he's not shy about moving on to someone else if he's not happy. “I've never given that a thought with Todd,” Campbell said. “I sent him four or five horses when he only had a stable of eight or nine at Hialeah in the spring of 1996. I don't notice any difference in the attention now than it was then. I stopped being nervous about Todd's heavy load of horses and his other owners a long time ago. It's been 13 years and we've never had a hiccup. He's never failed to return a call. I've never observed him when he's flustered or in a hurry, and I don't know how he does it.”
David Fiske, who has managed the bloodstock operation of the Winchell family for over 25 years, began working with Steve Asmussen and his family in the late 1980s, when Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally recommended the Winchell horses be sent to the Asmussens' breaking and training center in Laredo, Texas. He says his longstanding relationship with Steve Asmussen is quite simple.
“Whenever I call him up he answers the phone,” said Fiske, “and whenever I ask him a question he answers it with remarkable accuracy, whether it's about a Graded Stakes winner or a claiming horse at Remington.”
Both men have an ability to recall the smallest details about their horses and races. “Todd has the most incredible memory of any human being I've ever met in my life,” said Campbell. “It's unbelievable. He will remember your telephone number at Saratoga from four years ago. He is able to cite chapter and verse of every animal in the barn. That is a weapon that has served him very well.
“He also has remarkable discipline and is just a brilliant horseman.”
Fiske says Asmussen also has an “amazing” memory. “Obviously the stakes horses are pretty easy,” Fiske said. “The other horses are a little more difficult, but no matter where they are—Woodbine, Remington or wherever—he'll tell you how fast they worked and what day, complete with splits, with incredible accuracy.
“From a management standpoint where I am, that gives you a tremendous amount of confidence. And I never have a problem getting in touch with him, even with all the traveling he does. If he's in the air he'll call me right back.”
Asmussen is one of those people who seems to have more than 24 hours in each of his days. “I've been with him early in the morning at Churchill Downs on Derby week,” said Fiske, “and we might have had a horse run somewhere the night before in another time zone and I know it went off around midnight our time. He'll have watched the race and tell me how the horse ran.”
In 2004, when Asmussen broke Jack Van Berg's single-season record for most wins by a trainer, Fiske asked if he might cut back and focus more on quality over quantity. Asmussen's response? “I want to win them all.”
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