Trainer Steve Asmussen is hoping lucky number 14 or 15 will be the magic number to take him into the coveted Kentucky Derby (GI) winner’s circle after sending 13 runners out since his first starter, Fifty Stars, in 2001. The closest he’s come was Nehro’s second-place finish in 2011 and eventual Horse of the Year and Preakness Stakes (GI) winner Curlin’s third in 2007. This year he’s well-prepared with Risen Star Stakes (GIII) and Louisiana Derby (GII) winner Gun Runner, the leading candidate with the most number of points earned on the Triple Crown trail, and upset Arkansas Derby (GI) hero Creator.
Though he was born in South Dakota, Asmussen hails from a prominent racing family — his parents, Keith and Marilyn, operate El Primero training center in Laredo, TX, and older brother Cash is a former champion European jockey and Eclipse Award-winner who now trains on his own. The younger Asmussen started his career out at 16, also as a jockey, but before long his size would prove to be a detriment and he was soon training Quarter Horses on his own in New Mexico. By the late ‘90s he was all thoroughbreds and, by 2004, he set a record of 555 trips to the winner’s circle. In 2006, he set a single-season mark of 622 wins, which he eclipsed himself the following year with 623 winners.
The two-time Eclipse Award winner (2008 and 2009) is a recent inductee into racing’s Hall of Fame and has managed the campaigns of some of racing’s best horses, including the aforementioned Curlin, 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and Cuvee, Pyro, Kodiak Kowboy, Untapable, Tapizar, Regally Ready and My Miss Aurelia — just to name a few.
Gun Runner has done little wrong to earn his 151 points, winning four of his five career starts. He broke his maiden at Churchill Downs in September, but was also fourth in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (GII) in November over a sloppy track. He’s been training all month over the Louisville oval and has done little wrong, judging by his series of steady and strong works. He is absolutely one of the runners to beat — especially with his favorable stalking running style — when the horses break from the gate on May 7.
Creator never ran a bad race, but took his time to launch his breakout performance in the Arkansas Derby. He broke his maiden in his sixth start by 7 1/4 lengths but picked up four second-place finishes beforehand. His stakes debut produced a third in the Risen Star and, after gaining some trouble and experience, put it all together to win his final prep in impressive last-to-first fashion. While confirmed closers typically don’t win the Derby, it’s a good bet he won’t be last in the early going and hoping to avoid too much traffic to get to the wire in front.