Steve Asmussen was unusually jovial as he reflected upon his first win in New York’s signature race. Irad Ortiz Jr. accepted congratulations while sipping coffee at The Morning Line cafe on Belmont Park’s backstretch. Savoring a Belmont Stakes triumph the morning after was a taste of paradise.
Asmussen again saluted Ortiz’s terrific ride on Creator, who nosed out Destin in the 148th Belmont, the oldest of the 3-year-old classics. Ortiz, a polite 23-year-old who looks 17, smiled and nodded when asked if he’d dreamed about the race before waking up on a sunny Sunday.
The Belmont’s traditional blanket of carnations hung nearby as Asmussen spoke outside Barn 58. Even for a Hall of Famer who has trained more than 7,300 winners, his first score in “The Test of the Champion” was an overpowering rush. Without Ortiz’s tactical brilliance, it wouldn’t have happened.
“I thought Irad did a masterful job with all of his decisions,” Asmussen said. “He saved enough ground going into the first turn and stayed inside, and that gave us a chance to win.”
When Creator ran 13th after having traffic trouble in the Kentucky Derby with Asmussen’s regular rider, Ricardo Santana Jr., Asmussen switched to Ortiz, a rising star.
“I was disappointed by Creator’s Derby and thought maybe he’d lost his opportunity,” Asmussen said. “He could easily have lost his focus after that trip, but he didn’t get sour. I was just glad he got the chance to prove his worth. I’m very proud of what he did yesterday.”
The compact gray colt is a son of the nearly white Tapit, the world’s highest-priced stallion. Creator was a slow learner, losing his first five races. Lack of early speed held him back, but Asmussen knew his pedigree held great potential for distance.
“He’s a route horse,’’ he said. “It took a while for the light to go on. I don’t think he gave a tremendous amount of effort in his first four or five races.”
Creator was on nobody’s Derby list when he entered the Arkansas Derby 1-for-7. He went off at 11-1 odds, and his charge from last to first made Asmussen, 50, think he might have his first Derby winner. Things didn’t work out at Churchill Downs, but five weeks later, Creator is world-famous.
Asmussen is from a distinguished racing family. His older brother, Cash, excelled as a jockey in this country before becoming France’s champion in the 1980s. Their parents, Keith and Marilyn, are racing lifers who run the El Primero Training Center in Laredo, Texas, near the Mexican border.
“Racing for me is a family affair,” Steve Asmussen said. “I grew up in my parents’ barn, and they’re still a huge part of our operation.”
Among El Primero’s graduates is Tapit, a two-time champion sire who stands for $300,000 at Gainesway Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. Creator is his second Belmont hero in three years, joining Tonalist (2014).
“To describe myself as a fan of Tapit is not enough,’’ Asmussen said. “My parents got him started at their place, so Creator’s success is very rewarding. It’s great to be able to celebrate it with the whole family.”
There’s a wall on the second floor of Belmont Park’s clubhouse that showcases photos of every Belmont winner since 1925. Because he wasn’t up there, Asmussen avoided it. “Now I can finally walk by that wall,” he said, “and look at all the pictures.’’
Exaggerator stays at Belmont. Trainer Keith Desormeaux said Preakness winner Exaggerator, who ran 11th as the Belmont’s 7-5 favorite, will remain at Belmont Park to prepare for a summer campaign.