by Jeremy Plonk
March 4, 2019
True, it only takes one to win the Kentucky Derby. In fact, barring a historic dead-heat, it will only take one each year. But even knowing that, I’m fascinated by the first two months of the year put up by Steve Asmussen’s endless bench of sophomore colts and geldings in 2019.
From January 1 through the end of the weekend, Asmussen scored with 25 winners amongst the 3-year-old colt/gelding division. Mark Casse is the only other trainer in America in double-digits, and he’s far back with 11. Asmussen’s 25 totals more than Todd Pletcher (8), Doug O’Neill (7), Chad Brown (4) and Bob Baffert (4) combined.
I took the fabulous database at Betmix.com for a spin to dive deeper into this incredible run for Asmussen. It’s not his first rodeo putting up big numbers for this point in the season, but it’s even sizably impressive for his operation. He had 13 such wins in 2016 through March 3; then 11 in 2017; and then improved to 19 in 2018.
The gold standard for divisional January-February wins in recent times has been Todd Pletcher. He put up national-best totals 4 straight years until this one: first with 16 wins in 2015; rose to 20 in 2016; then won 16 in 2017; and peaked at 21 in 2018. Even Pletcher in recent years hasn’t really come close to the 25-mark flashed by Asmussen this year.
Can Asmussen win his first Kentucky Derby in 2019? He’s come close in Louisville with superstars like Curlin, third in 2007, and longshots like Lookin At Lee, 33-1 runner-up in 2017. And we know he can win the Preakness, doing so with Curlin in ’07 and Rachel Alexandra two years later. Asmussen added a Belmont Stakes in 2016 with Creator. So the Kentucky Derby remains his one elusive jewel.
He’s got the quantity in 2019, but the quality is still to be determined. You won’t find many of his horses on Top-10 lists right now. His 25 victories have come at 6 tracks: Oaklawn, Aqueduct, Fair Grounds, Sunland Park, Delta Downs and Sam Houston. Without a Gulfstream or Santa Anita on that list, you can see why some may be less impressed. His stakes winners so far include only Nitrous in the Riley Allison Derby at Sunland and Shang in the Louisiana Premier Night Prince at Delta.
The Oaklawn trail appears to be for the taking with the Smarty Jones and Southwest Stakes winners both on the sidelines with injuries. Asmussen-trained Long Range Toddy has hit the board in both stakes and keeps punching. Barnmates like Captain Von Trapp and Laughing Fox seem to be improving through the local allowance ranks and could rise up. The new Oaklawn Invitational on Kentucky Derby Day will have a Preakness Win & You’re In connotation to it, so even this late, late bloomers may serve notice.
At Fair Grounds, Limonite had a troubled trip in the Risen Star and would appear a legitimate contender in the Louisiana Derby. He’s widely panned as Asmussen’s A-lister right now for the Derby. Nitrous and Wicked Indeed could be Sunland players having run well in New Mexico’s pair of preps. Tikhvin Flew has been promising in New York, third in the Jimmy Winkfield and perhaps will get a trail shot at the Big A. There’s always Keeneland’s Blue Grass for any late arrivals or overflow sorts, a meet Asmussen frequents and supports.
All the numbers in the world won’t assure anything. Barclay Tagg only needed one Funny Cide in 2003, and Art Sherman a single California Chrome in 2014. The Kentucky Derby cares little for quantity; history reminds us of that. But it’s hard not to be appreciative of the January-February build-up of the 2019 Asmussen brigade. Now he just needs to find a team captain.