It was a celebration of greatness that might be impossible to top. Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra were among the best female thoroughbreds in the sport’s 350 years. Trainer Steve Asmussen’s 7,379 wins are second all-time, and former jockey Ramon Dominguez’s 23-percent win rate ranks third best ever.
The four were officially immortalized Friday morning at the Fasig-Tipton Sales Pavilion in Saratoga Springs. Their plaques will hang a few blocks away at the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, across the street from Saratoga Race Course.
“They say fame is fleeting, but obscurity is forever,’’ master of ceremonies Tom Durkin said. “At the Hall of Fame, we make sure that their accomplishments will never be forgotten.”
Asmussen, 50, trained Rachel Alexandra, who was voted Horse of the Year in 2009 after beating males in the Preakness, Haskell and Woodward. As a teenager, Asmussen wanted to be a jockey like his older brother, Cash, who became France’s champion in the 1980s. Both learned horsemanship in Laredo, Texas, at El Primero Training Center, owned and operated by their parents, Keith and Marilyn.
Asmussen rode for three years before he outgrew the saddle. He’s over 6 feet and weighs about as much as two jockeys. He began training at 20 in 1986, and his hundreds of stakes trophies include two Preaknesses, a Belmont, Dubai World Cup, Breeders’ Cup Classic and Kentucky Oaks. His 650 wins in 2009 are a record, and he had the Horse of the Year for three straight seasons, Curlin (2007-08) and Rachel Alexandra.
Asmussen’s wife, Julie, was his presenter. She was diagnosed last September with neck and throat cancer, and after surgery and months of radiation and chemotherapy, she was declared cancer-free in March.
She spoke of early days when she and Steve slept in stalls with sick horses and she was his only hot walker. She recalled a victory celebration in Dubai when their limo pulled up to a McDonald’s drive-through.
“From a small town in Texas, you beat the odds,” she said. “You made it big. Congratulations, honey.”
Asmussen can be intimidating and brusque, but he was uncharacteristically emotional during his acceptance speech. He thanked Julie and their three sons and saluted his parents for instilling their relentless work ethic in him. He thanked his assistants, Scott Blasi and Toby Sheets, and his owners, particularly Barbara Banke and her late husband, Jess Jackson, who sent him Curlin and Rachel Alexandra.
“When we were kids, when Mom was training and Dad was riding,” he said, “they set a great example for us.”
John Shirreffs, who graduated high school in Port Washington in 1964, trained Zenyatta, who was 19-for-19 before losing her career finale by a head to Blame in the 2010 Classic, which she won the year before. Despite the loss, Zenyatta was 2010 Horse of the Year. “I’ll never have another one like her,’’ Shirreffs said this year. “She was really unique, one of the best ever.”
Zenyatta, a huge mare who came from far behind, was a charismatic cult figure. She enjoyed people, would even lick children’s foreheads and had hundreds of thousands in her fan club. She was such a mainstream celebrity that CBS’ “60 Minutes” devoted a segment to her.
“She was so good for the game,” Durkin said. “And she was as popular as any horse was going back probably to Secretariat.”
Dominguez was the undisputed king of New York before a severe head injury forced him to retire at 36 in June 2013. In each year from 2009-12 the soft-spoken Venezuelan had the most combined winners at Aqueduct, Belmont Park and Saratoga, and in 2012 he set the Spa record with 68. He was the regular jockey on the mare Havre de Grace, the 2011 Horse of the Year, and won 20 meet titles in New York.
Durkin called thousands of Dominguez’s races. “I think the only words I said more than ‘They’re off,’ were ‘Now entering the winner’s circle, Ramon Dominguez.’ ”
Dominguez sheds “tears of joy” when he reflects upon a career that ended much too soon. To Asmussen, he’s “one of the classiest people I’ve ever met, let alone a great jock.” Dominguez’s former agent, Steve Rushing, paid him the ultimate compliment.
“Ramon is someone we should all try to be like every day,’’ he said, “and the world would be a better place.”
Notes & quotes: Also inducted, as Pillars of the Turf, were Arthur “Bull” Hancock Jr. (1910-72) and William Woodward Sr. (1876-1953). Hancock, master of Kentucky’s Claiborne Farm, bred 32 champions, including Hall of Famers Bold Ruler, Kelso, Riva Ridge and Forego. Woodward, chairman of The Jockey Club from 1930-50, bred five Hall of Famers and is the only person to breed two Triple Crown heroes, Gallant Fox (1930) and his son Omaha (1935).
The Hall’s Historic Review Committee inducted a horse, 1875 Preakness winner Tom Ochiltree, and jockey Wayne Wright (1916-2003), who won a Kentucky Derby, Preakness and a Belmont Stakes.