There’s Gun Runner’s Pegasus, the perfect finale to a $15.9 million career. Curlin’s Preakness, a first Classic win. Rachel Alexandra’s Woodward, the rafters shook, the ground shook, none of us were the same after that. There are nearly 9,000 wins along a Hall of Fame career.
And then there is the ninth race at Lone Star Park July 26, 2020.
“No comparison. Out of body experience.”
That’s how Steve Asmussen described a maiden special weight going 7 furlongs on a steamy summer night in Texas. That’s the difference between family and fame.
Keith James Asmussen, Steve and Julie’s oldest son, guided Inis Gluaire to a head win. It was the 8,920th win of Steve’s roiling career that began at Ruidoso Downs in 1986. It was Keith’s first victory in an improbable riding foray that began this summer.
“It’s unbelievable feeling, I can’t find the words to describe it,” Keith, 22, said. “It still hasn’t hit me that it happened. It’s been a dream of mine since I was the youngest kid ever. I dumbfound myself when I try to find the words to explain it, nothing short of a dream come true.”
For father and son, mother, brothers, uncle, grandparents.
“It’s unbelievable, I cannot accurately put it into words how special it is, how much it means to me and the whole family,” Steve said. “You want it for him because of the quality of human he is. He did it the right way, he didn’t walk up at 150 pounds and say put me on something, that’s not how it happened. This isn’t the game for that.”
The 22-year-old was in his third year at University of Texas, studying accounting, when Covid-19 shuttered school. Son called dad, asked if he could come to Oaklawn Park to gallop horses in the morning, go to school online in the afternoon. On one condition. Keith promised he would go back to school in the fall. Deal.
“I loved the idea,” Steve said.
But this time, it was different. Keith had galloped for his dad over the years, before classes in high school in Arlington, summer gigs at Saratoga, but there was more to it this time.
“It was in the back of my mind,” Keith said. “I really thought I could make a great run at it by the summer.”
Steve Asmussen could see it brewing. The kid who weighs “a buck 32” at school began to change what he ate for dinner, began to look leaner, think clearer. The part-time exercise rider began to look like a full-fledged jockey.
“It went from a summer job to a continuation of doing it at this level, he went from breezing a couple a week to several a day, people are asking if he’s going to ride,” Steve said. “I can tell that he’s watching what he’s eating, you can tell it’s starting to happen, but I’ve got a failsafe, there’s no way he’s going to talk his mom into this, right?”
Mom agreed and son kept asking dad.
“About the 200th time I asked, he said OK,” Keith said. “There was no doubt I wanted to do it, it just never seemed feasible with my physique, it does take quite a bit of discipline, but I feel incredibly blessed that I’ve stayed the same size. When I started galloping, my dad said I was probably going to get too big to gallop and here I am five years later, riding races. It’s nothing short of unbelievable.”
Keith rode his first race June 15, finishing second aboard Senor Jobim. A week later, he finished second on Comic. Five weeks into his adventure, he had yet to win a race while notching several seconds and thirds in 18 rides, all for his dad.
“Not frustrating, but at the back of your mind, you’re like, ‘Come on, now.’ I’ve been blessed with some amazing opportunities and I’m incredibly thankful,” Keith said. “To get it done is such a weight off my shoulders. I had such high expectations and they have exceeded those expectations.”
Inis Gluaire volleyed on the lead with two rivals, put them away and just lasted over an onrushing Im Justa Bachelor. The apprentice, who doesn’t claim his bug because of his weight, folded his lanky frame and kept the colt together in the dying strides to add another win for a family full of them.
“To get to ride . . . my father rode, my grandfather rode, my uncle rode, to even to get to do it, it’s nothing short of unbelievable to me,” Keith said. “I’m very thankful that it’s been instilled in my values. I think about it and I get more emotional. I wasn’t the only one riding that horse, that’s for sure.”
Keith wound up in the fountain, thrown there by his fellow jockeys, a Lone Star tradition.
Two days after the win, Steve’s voice rasps. He watched from the eighth pole, the solitude of a horse trainer, a jockey’s father.
“I literally broke my screamer, my throat is gone,” Steve said. “I looked up on the big monitor and they had it on the other horse galloping out. Julie was further up the racetrack from me, she was looking at me, like, ‘Do you think he won it?’ And I didn’t. When they put his number up, it was more than emotional.”
As for going back to school in the fall, Keith is signed up for three online classes and two in person.
“It’s a promise I made and a promise I’ll keep,” Keith said. “And it’s a good thing he made me promise, because I didn’t think it would be this addicting.”
And if all the classes are moved online?
“I’ll revisit that promise with my father.”