Steve Asmussen, who won his first Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets with Creator on Saturday in the trainer's third try for the third jewel in the Triple Crown, happily reported the son of Tapit to be in tip-top shape this morning.
“I am obviously very proud of the horse. He's very proud [of himself] this morning and he's very alert. I'm kind of surprised by his energy. He ate up last night,” said Asmussen, who admitted he didn't get much sleep. “I got up to watch the replay every 15 minutes.”
What he saw each time was as exhilarating as when Creator, with Irad Ortiz, Jr. up, rallied from way off the pace, spilt horses in the stretch, dug down deep inside the eighth pole, and got up just in time to get his nose down at the wire and prevail over the Todd Pletcher-trained Destin.
“I thought it was a great race. I thought Irad did a masterful job with him and with every decision he made,” he said. “I really thought the horse tried to win late. He just really, really laid out there and dug in, and I personally feel very fortunate for his effort.”
Asmussen finished fourth in 2011 with Nehro and in 2007 eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin came up short by a head after battling the filly Rags to Riches whisker-to-whisker down the lane in one of the most dramatic finishes in Belmont Stakes history. As fate would have it, Pletcher also trained Rags to Riches, who went on as well to post-season championship honors.
“I cannot wait to walk by that wall [the Clubhouse display of past Belmont winners], and I'll actually stop next year and look at the pictures for obvious reasons,” said Asmussen.
He also is experiencing a sense of satisfaction that now Creator, who is owned by WinStar Farm LLC and Bobby Flay, is a Classic race winner. After winning the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, he encountered a terrible Kentucky Derby trip to finish 13th, and skipped the Preakness Stakes.
Considering the Derby, where things can and did go wrong in a 20-horse field, Asmussen said that a horse's ability does not always guarantee success.
“We're just very proud for him having the opportunity to prove who he was. Nothing but congratulations to the victors. We felt he could prove his worth and he did yesterday,” said Asmussen. “For him to be carrying Irad as well as he was at the quarter-pole and then dig in to the wire [was impressive]. I thought he galloped out good. He's a strong horse. This is a credit to him. I'm very proud that he got it done on such a big day.”
It took Creator six tries until he graduated from the maiden ranks at Oaklawn Park February 27 and Asmussen credited his assistant Darren Fleming for the colt's remarkable progression in becoming the Arkansas Derby winner. Asmussen said the mindset Creator learned at Oaklawn made a difference in the Belmont.
“You walk over [in the Belmont], you're in the holding barn, there are 13 head, not much air moving in there, 10 times more people than you need under normal circumstances, but he stayed focused. The whole race, with the traffic, he stayed focused. He never gave anything back. He stayed on the bridle,” he said. “I mentioned Irad's trip with him, but he stayed right underneath him. He stuck his head out at the wire. The pageantry of it didn't overwhelm him. I think that's where the other win [Arkansas Derby] comes in.”
Asmussen, who was born in Gettysburg, S.D., also heaped praise on his other Belmont runner, Gettysburg.
Gettysburg, a son of Pioneerof the Nile, is owned by WinStar as well. He faded to fifth in the Arkansas Derby after posting sizzling splits, and during Belmont week, WinStar president, CEO and racing manager Elliott Walden transferred the front-running colt from the barn of Pletcher to Asmussen to ensure there would be honest fractions in what had shaped up as a paceless race.
“After the Derby, you just want a shot. You just want it to unfold. Elliott made a great move with Gettysburg,” Asmussen said. “We'd seen his previous races and looked at it on paper. Without Gettysburg, the race goes fifty and change for a half-mile. Fifty and change makes it a cluster. It makes it a bowling ball going around there. We felt that a little pace would stretch the race out to where you had a shot. It was a very smoothly run race. With Gettysburg being there, it gave us 48 and change.”
Gettysburg's contributions were considerable, but the star of the day remained Creator.
“I was disappointed that we may have lost our window in the Derby with this horse, so I'm glad that he didn't sour off of that trip, which easily he could have. For the Belmont they talk about giving them time. Five weeks off the Derby ain't a lot of time. He didn't sour. He was willing to do it again and he didn't hold it against us, and it worked out for him,” Asmussen said.
Creator and Gettysburg, who wound up eighth in the Belmont after doing his job well, will both get some well-deserved R&R at WinStar farm, where they are headed tomorrow afternoon after their flight to Kentucky.
Asmussen said that Creator will spend an undetermined amount of time there, dependent upon how he responds, and will then be pointed to the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes on August 27 at Saratoga Race Course.
“I very much think that right now, with all of the pressure we've put on him, and the amount of racing that he's had this year, he needs a little mental freshening to get away from it for a bit,” said the trainer. “When he wins the Belmont in New York, you would love for Creator to be at his best for the Travers. But I think we need to do the responsible thing and let him let down a little bit, and then see how he responds. That is respect for the effort he gave us yesterday.”
Asmussen is also headed to Saratoga, where he will be inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in August, and good things are coming in triplicate for him.
In addition to becoming a Hall of Famer and a Belmont Stakes winner, he and his wife, Julie, are celebrating the recent news that the cancer she has battled ferociously has gone into remission.
“To be blessed enough to have the big victory yesterday and to be able celebrate and share that with your family means everything. Everything. Racing for me is a family affair. I grew up in my parents' barn and they're still a huge part of it. To be able to celebrate and share this win with my family is very, very special,” said Asmussen, who also had his children with him. “It's so exciting, the excitement of how the race unfolded with Creator just getting up. It's all the things we love about racing.”
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