LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Steve Asmussen was just voted into the Hall of Fame, and he trained the Horse of the Year for three consecutive seasons, Curlin (2007, 2008) and Rachel Alexandra (2009). He has sent out 7,292 winners, second all-time to the late Dale Baird’s 9,445, and he’s odds-on to be No. 1 within 10 years.
He has another record he’d love to get rid of. His 13 Kentucky Derby losers are the most by any trainer who hasn’t won it. Is it the hardest race in America to win?
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“It has been for me,’’ said Asmussen, who will saddle stalker Gun Runner and closer Creator on Saturday. “You try to think of the scenario that’s favorable for each horse, but you realize there are so many things that can happen that can eliminate you from the opportunity to run your best race.’’
Count the ways that can cancel the chance of a lifetime. A horse can draw a bad post position (1 is considered the worst). It can burn out in a speed duel, get stuck behind a slow pace or be blocked when making a potential winning move. It can be intimidated by the crush of 19 opponents. It can fail to handle Churchill Downs’ quirky surface. It can lack the stamina to handle 10 furlongs.
And just to make it to the starting gate, members of this notoriously fragile breed must avoid illness and injury and hold their form throughout the draining prep season.
“Those definitely are issues at all times, and so much of it is out of our control,’’ said Kiaran McLaughlin, who has Belmont, Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic trophies but is 0-for-6 in the Derby. “Our horse [Mohaymen] is perfectly sound, but that doesn’t prevent a temperature or a cough, and you have to worry about that every day.’’
Asmussen and McLaughlin are among many masterful horsemen frustrated by the Derby. Hall of Famers Ron McAnally (0-for-10), Bobby Frankel (0-for-8) Bill Mott (0-for-7) and Richard Mandella (0-for-6) are on the list. Irishman Aidan O’Brien, the world’s most powerful trainer, is 0-for-5. All-time earnings leader Todd Pletcher is 1-for-43, with 24 losers before breaking through with Super Saver in 2010.
Doug O’Neill trains this year’s favorite, Nyquist. O’Neill is one of the lucky ones, because 2012 winner I’ll Have Another was only his third Derby starter. Although Nyquist is 7-for-7, O’Neill is anything but overconfident.
“Whenever you line up 20 of the best 3-year-olds, you don’t necessarily have to be the best horse,’’ O’Neill said. “But you’ve got to be the luckiest horse, because with a lot of these horses you’re splitting hairs on the talent level.’’
The Derby has tormented many distinguished riders. Corey Nakatani (0-for-18) is the oh-fer king, followed by Alex Solis (15), Robby Albarado (14), Shane Sellers (13) and Rafael Bejarano, Garrett Gomez and David Flores (10). Hall of Famers Manny Ycaza, Randy Romero, Ramon Dominguez and Eddie Maple all were 0-for-9. So is Javier Castellano, winner of the past three Eclipse Awards but never better than fourth in the big race.
Laffit Pincay Jr. rode a record 9,530 winners, and Pat Day had 8,803. Pincay was 1-for-21 in the Derby. Day, who owned Churchill, went 1-for-22.
“It’s definitely the hardest race to win in the U.S.,’’ O’Neill said. “You have to have a clean trip, and even if you do you’ve got to have a horse that can go a mile and a quarter. It’s phenomenal to get one that can still be running on through the stretch in a race like that.
“It’s very challenging.’’
So, still think you can pick the winner?