Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen shoots for his fourth training title in five years at the Summer Meet at Ellis Park, which opens Thursday and concludes Aug. 30.
Ellis Park runs Thursday through Sunday, then takes next week off to let Keeneland Race Course make up five days and many of the Lexington track’s biggest stakes races from its canceled April meet. Ellis then resumes July 17 with its Friday through Sunday format, closing a week earlier than normal to let Churchill Downs conduct a delayed Kentucky Derby Week.
Asmussen comes into Ellis Park off a record-setting Churchill Downs session. While collecting a record 23rd training title at Churchill Downs, Asmussen also replaced Dale Romans as the all-time win leader under the Twin Spires, now by a 747-744 margin.
Asmussen hadn’t raced regularly at Ellis Park in years when he created a large division at Kentucky’s second-oldest racetrack in 2016, lured by increasing purses and a good racing surface. He promptly won the Ellis training title in that year, followed by 2017 and 2019, with Brad Cox winning in 2018. When Asmussen regained the crown last year by a 24-18 victory margin over Cox, he also came away with the distinction of being the meet’s leading owner with five wins.
“Everything is different this year,” Asmussen said last week, referencing life in the COVID-19 era while adjusting the protective mask on his face as he stood outside of Churchill Downs. “It’s going to take us a while to get the right horses there to run. I’m anxious to see what races go, who you’ll be able to run. Nothing has been typical this year with anywhere we are running now.
“Purses have taken a hit everywhere, pretty much, very few exceptions to that. We are running the same horse for a little less money, but the pandemic caused that financial situation in a lot of things. We should be represented in most categories there. It is a bit different with Keeneland running five days in there, (with) their traditional stakes. We run a couple of days at Ellis, then five days at Keeneland then we resume. I think once we get through the Keeneland meet and you get horses moved back around, we’ll have the right horses to run there.”
Each win at Ellis this summer will bring Asmussen a step closer to a goal he has long coveted: being the winningest Thoroughbred trainer in history. He currently has 8,889 wins in a career dating to 1986, trailing only the late Dale Baird by 556, which puts Asmussen on pace to take over the lead next year.
Asked about not being shy in wanting to be No. 1 all-time, Asmussen laughed and said, “As opposed to not be? You do. We’re blessed with opportunity. I feel we should win a lot more than we do already, and hopefully we’ll correct that soon.”
Asmussen can get off to a fast start this meet in his defense of both his trainer and owner’s titles, with a horse in three of the first four races Thursday, two of whom he owns. In the fourth race, Asmussen will send out Three Chimneys’ first-time starter Fuego Caliente, the 7-5 favorite in the field of eight 2-year-olds. Fuego Caliente is a son of champion Will Take Charge, who stands in stud at Three Chimneys Farm in Woodford County. His mom is the Hook and Ladder mare Noble Fire, whose four winners from her first four foals to race include female sprint champion and $1.5 million-earner La Verdad and Grade 3 Charles Town Oaks winner Hot City Girl.
Asmussen has high praise for Ellis’ track surface, which always has been known as a very good, safe surface, with former Keeneland track superintendent Javier Barajas taking over its care this year.
“We’ve been stabled at Ellis Park for a couple of weeks now, and I’m extremely pleased with the surface,” Asmussen said. “I think it’s better than it’s ever been.”
The trainer said he expects to be in the Aug. 9 Runhappy Ellis Park Derby, whose purse was doubled to $200,000 and distance extended to 1 1/8 miles. The winner will receive 50 points toward qualifying for the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby, almost assuredly guaranteeing a spot in the 20-horse starting gate for America’s most famous race.
“I have horses I do plan running there,” Asmussen said. “I’m not positive who I plan on running, but we will run at least one. I think unprecedented is the situation we’re in right now: Who you will run that may need points to secure your spot (in the Derby), or the fact that it is simply a good financial spot for who you have has yet to be determined. With having already run the Belmont Stakes, it’s just a very different time for horse racing.”
Asmussen's Ellis Park operation is overseen by assistant trainer Mitch Dennison.