See Asmussen's best chance for his 1st Kentucky Derby win

See Asmussen's best chance for his 1st Kentucky Derby win
Photo: Hodges Photography

Super Stock was the feel-good, family story of the Kentucky Derby prep season. But if Steve Asmussen is to get that elusive first victory in America’s biggest race, it seems more likely with Midnight Bourbon.

“He checks a lot of the boxes,” Asmussen said. “Solid 2-year-old form, improving 3-year-old, and being a numbers guy he has incrementally gotten faster as the races have gotten longer.”

The Grade 3 winner who was the runner-up in last month’s Louisiana Derby (G2) carries another high number. Midnight Bourbon is best-priced at 22-1 in Las Vegas.

Having long shots is nothing new for Asmussen. His 0-for-21 record in the Derby may carry a harsh glare, but he has also never saddled the post-time favorite. All but three of his horses were at least 10-1. Twelve were longer than 20-1. Nehro was 8-1 in 2011 and Lookin At Lee 33-1 in 2017 when they finished second. Curlin was 5-1 in 2007 and Gun Runner 10-1 in 2016 when they were third.

Asmussen cannot fight that. All he can do is take the horses he has and get them as ready as they can be. A pair of bullet works this month at Churchill Downs may have signaled that Midnight Bourbon is on the right track.

“He’s a horse that is the picture of health and training beautifully right now,” Asmussen said in an interview for this week’s VSiN racing podcast. “Obviously we feel excellent about Mike Smith picking up the mount on him with the success Mike has had on the grandest stage.”

A two-time Derby winner, Smith takes over from Joe Talamo, who rode Midnight Bourbon to a win, a third and a second in the Derby preps at Fair Grounds. The Tiznow colt was never more than a length off the lead turning for home. Does that mean Smith will be called on to challenge Caddo River for the lead next Saturday at Churchill Downs?

“I would be surprised by it,” Asmussen said. “He’s a horse that breaks cleanly, but it appears to me there are horses that need it to have success. We’re very confident with the foundation that he’s had that he doesn’t have to have the lead. He’s just got a high cruising speed, and nobody will get too far away from him.”

Where Midnight Bourbon was bought as a yearling for $525,000 by longtime Asmussen client Ron Winchell, Super Stock cost Asmussen’s father, Keith, and partner Erv Woolsey just $70,000. The Dialed In colt broke his maiden in Texas with Asmussen’s son, also named Keith, riding last summer.

Ricardo Santana Jr., who has been on five of Asmussen’s Derby horses, rode Super Stock to this month’s 12-1 victory at Oaklawn. He gets the call again next weekend on a horse that carries 30-1 Derby odds in Nevada.

Super Stock continues to carry the hopes of the Asmussen family on the crest of a victorious Arkansas Derby wave.

“My parents’ reaction and the whole family’s reaction was better than I can imagine,” Asmussen said. “Mom and dad are 79 years old, and (Sunday) they celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. I believe their story is anything but typical. It’s just the culmination – or a highlight of it.”

Where Asmussen has a pair of Derby long shots, he may have a better chance Friday to win for the third time in the Kentucky Oaks, specifically with Clairière. The winner in February of the Rachel Alexandra (G2) at Fair Grounds, she is 8-1 in offshore futures. She is also 1-for-3 against Oaks favorite Travel Column.

“Clairière has stamped herself as a frontrunner in that division,” Asmussen said. “Physically and pedigree-wise (by Curlin), as far as prospects going into the Oaks, I don’t think you could be much higher on one than we are on her.”

Asmussen also has 16-1 Oaks long shot Pauline’s Pearl, who won as the odds-on favorite this month at Oaklawn in the Fantasy (G3).

“Pauline’s Pearl is a filly that has continuously improved,” Asmussen said. “You’re looking at a Tapit filly out of a Grade 1 winner (Hot Dixie Chick) with a pedigree that has a Derby winner (Unbridled) near the top of it. The sky’s the limit for her as well.”

While Asmussen sounded most confident in Clairière, he tempered his enthusiasm with a tone of calm that comes with more than 35 years of training and his Hall of Fame credentials.

Overshadowed in all the talk about next week’s biggest races was another one of Asmussen’s standouts. When futures betting opened last fall, Jackie’s Warrior was the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. After going 4-for-4 in one-turn races including a pair of Grade 1s, he finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and third nearly two months ago in the slop of the Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn.

Reverting to one turn, Jackie’s Warrior will be joined by stablemate and allowance winner Whiskey Double in the Pat Day Mile (G2) next Saturday on the Derby undercard.

“The circumstances of both his two-turn races were not ideal, but why fight it?” Asmussen said. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Oaklawn slower than that day. Super Stock’s victory in the Arkansas Derby was meant to be. The opposite of that were the circumstances of Jackie’s Warrior’s two-turn races. The circumstances said it wasn’t meant to be.”

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