LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Spring is the season of rebirth, and never has that been more so for trainer Steve Asmussen.
His professional trials that began two years ago are well known: accusations by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, subsequent investigations by racing commissions in Kentucky and New York, removal from the ballot for the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame, and a call from the head of The Jockey Club to stay away from Churchill Downs the week of the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Oaks.
The personal trials that he and, more significantly, his wife, Julie, have gone through in recent months have played out away from the public eye, but they are sharing them publicly here for the first time.
In September, Julie Asmussen was diagnosed with neck and throat cancer.
Both professional and personally, this spring has brought great joy. Steve Asmussen, who did not have a horse in either the Kentucky Oaks or Derby last year, has three fillies -- Royal Obsession, Taxable, and Terra Promessa -- in this year's Oaks. He has two colts -- Creator and Gun Runner -- in this year's Derby. Less than two weeks ago, after being allowed back on the 2016 ballot, he was voted into the Hall of Fame.
In March -- after months of radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery -- Julie Asmussen received terrific news from her doctors. The PET scans showed nothing. She was cancer-free.
"It's very emotional, hard to talk about," Steve Asmussen said in his stable office at Churchill Downs this week. With his wild mane of hair and intense persona, Asmussen can put up an intimidating front. But speaking about his wife of 19 years, he had to pause a few times to wipe his eyes, and in the midst of the conversation, he got a text from his wife saying she was about to go out for a bike ride.
"She's an amazing human being," Asmussen said. "What she's been through -- talk about something that matters. And it came completely out of the blue."
The context was clear. What Asmussen went through professionally was nothing compared to what his wife is dealing with.
"It's very hard. It was a very trying seven months," Julie Asmussen said in a telephone interview from the family's home in Arlington, Texas. "But when you do get those PET scan results, you say, 'Yes, I did it.' The treatment impacts your taste buds and salivary glands, but when you get those results, you feel like you can do whatever you want.
"I want people to know you can do it. But I couldn't have done it without the support of Steve and the kids. I'm very blessed."
The Asmussens have three sons -- Keith, 17; Darren, 15; and Erik, 13.
"The boys stepped up wonderfully," Steve Asmussen said. "I've found that kids are like racehorses -- it's all about the mare."
What has transpired with the Asmussen stable in recent months is a tribute to the confidence Asmussen has in his staff, and the trust Asmussen has received from some of the sport's most significant owners.
Last fall, shortly after the Breeders' Cup, Asmussen told his top assistant, Scott Blasi, "You're not going to see much of me."
"Steve would fly in for work days, then be right back at Julie's side," said Blasi, who was based this winter at Fair Grounds.
It was at Fair Grounds that Gun Runner won both the Risen Star and the Louisiana Derby. Creator raced there this winter before heading to Oaklawn Park, where Darren Fleming was Asmussen's on-site assistant. After finishing third in the Rebel Stakes, Creator captured the Arkansas Derby.
"I'm beyond proud of how everybody responded," Asmussen said.
Julie Asmussen traveled for the first time this spring to the Louisiana Derby. Her second trip was to the Arkansas Derby, and her parents, Jim and Francis Peterson, were there along with the three Asmussen boys.
"With her test results and the style in which Creator won, that was a great family moment," Steve Asmussen said.
The success of Gun Runner and Creator are testaments to the respect Asmussen commands as a horseman.
Gun Runner is owned by Ron and Joan Winchell, whose interests are managed by David Fiske. They have been loyal clients of Asmussen for more than two decades and never wavered in their support of Asmussen while the PETA charges were investigated.
"Ron Winchell and his family, David Fiske, they stood up for us. How proud I am of who they are," Asmussen said. "That they showed that much class under that kind of pressure speaks volumes. The support I got was very humbling. To know the support you have under extremely trying circumstances is a wonderful feeling."
Creator was the first horse sent to Asmussen by Kenny Troutt's WinStar Farm, which admired the work Asmussen has done with offspring of Tapit, who are known for their talent and strong-willed personalities.
"Steve has done a wonderful job with Creator," said Elliott Walden, a former trainer who is the president, chief executive, and racing manager for WinStar. "He was a very immature 2-year-old. He was on his hind legs all the time on the farm. He had an excitable streak to him.
"We sent him to Steve, who had a game plan that made a lot of sense. He wanted to work on the mental aspect of the way Creator approached his training. Like a lot of Hall of Fame trainers, his attention to detail is excellent. He thought with Creator, it was best to work him every eight or nine days instead of every six or seven. He didn't want to tighten the screws too much.
"He started him off on the turf," Walden added, "not because he thought he'd be a turf horse but because he wanted his first experiences to be good ones. He was kind of immature. Get a couple of runs into him, not have him discouraged on the dirt."
Those early decisions are paying off now as Creator has blossomed this spring and heads into the Derby in the best form of his career.
In the past two years, Asmussen also has picked up the Roth family's LNJ Foxwoods as a major client, and Barbara Banke's Stonestreet Stables is back in the fold after stepping away in the immediate aftermath of the PETA allegations.
The Stonestreet story arc comes full circle with both Asmussen and the Stonestreet-owned Rachel Alexandra as two of the four contemporary members of the Hall of Fame induction class of 2016.
It is a far different feeling for the Asmussen barn than 24 months ago. Although Asmussen won the 2014 Kentucky Oaks with Untapable -- his second win in that race -- the PETA video, accompanying story by The New York Times, and tabling of Asmussen's name on that year's Hall of Fame ballot cast Asmussen as a villain.
Exhaustive investigations by racing commissions in Kentucky and New York -- the latter lasting so long that it was cited as the reason to keep Asmussen off the Hall of Fame ballot in 2015 -- are now complete. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission brought no charges against Asmussen, saying the allegations "had neither a factual or scientific basis." The New York State Gaming Commission fined Asmussen for minor transgressions, but the most serious charges were deemed unfounded. It's fair to say no trainer has ever been so thoroughly investigated.
"We scoped and vetted and ultrasounded good," Asmussen said.
And now Asmussen heads into the weekend with his barn as strong as ever, with multiple entries in both the Oaks and Derby, all to be shared with his family.
"We're doing good," he said. "I do think we've rebounded nicely. What we went through two years ago, hopefully that taught us a lot, will better prepare us to do better in the future. It was a cleansing. You realize how much support we have and how grateful we are for it. You realize how fleeting the opportunity could be."
Professionally and, more importantly, personally, Asmussen could have lost a lot. He knows it. And he puts it in proper perspective.
"My wife," he said, "that's true strength."
Asmussens outrun personal, professional trials
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