Steve Asmussen is back in the winner’s circle.
The Arlington horse trainer — who built one of the industry’s most successful operations and later faced animal abuse allegations — is headed back to the Kentucky Derby.
The allegations that once knocked him out of consideration for the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame have been addressed, most of them determined to be “largely unfounded,” and Asmussen is back on the list of finalists for the prestigious honor.
The 50-year-old is gearing up for the Kentucky Derby while he also prepares to race his “full barn” of dozens of horses in Lone Star Park’s thoroughbred season that kicks off Thursday.
“I’m very proud of all the support [I received] to get through this,” said Asmussen, long known as the winningest trainer at Lone Star Park. “It’s back to where it belongs.
Hopefully we’ve weathered the toughest part.
Steve Asmussen, the winningest trainer at Lone Star Park, who is headed to the Kentucky Derby
“Hopefully we’ve weathered the toughest part and we’ve built the product back to something people want to be part of.”
Asmussen’s star — Gun Runner, the three-year old colt who won the Louisiana Derby and qualified for the Kentucky Derby — won’t race at Lone Star this season, since he has already gone to the Bluegrass State to prepare for the first race of the Triple Crown.
Asmussen will be there with him much of the time.
But there’s no way he wouldn’t make it back home for some of the Lone Star races.
“We’ve been very fortunate to have national success with Gun Runner,” he said. “But we are very fortunate to have some great horses [that will race in Grand Prairie].
“It’s very important to stay true to your roots.”
Asmussen knows about roots.
The South Dakota-born and Texas-bred man comes from a prominent Texas-based racing family that has been raising and training horses in South Texas for decades.
His parents, Keith and Marilyn “Sis” Asmussen, moved to Laredo when he was two and have operated the El Primero Training Center for decades. Asmussen said he generally uses some of the horses first trained at his parents’ facility.
He began racing horses himself when he was just 16, but within a few years his weight and height was too much for him to be a jockey.
He graduated from high school in Laredo in 1985 and began training horses, like his parents, the next year.
Asmussen has picked up numerous honors, including becoming the winningest trainer at Lone Star Park after coming in first for 11 seasons.
Through the years, not only did he become the winningest trainer at Lone Star Park — coming in first for 11 seasons — but he is also a two-time winner of the annual Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer and conditioner of horses.
Winning countless awards for outstanding trainer and leading many tallies of trainers for wins and earnings, he has five Breeders’ Cup victories and numerous other training titles.
Last year he became the U.S. trainer with the second most all-time career wins, when he passed the 7,000-win mark. He also ranked fourth in earnings for trainers.
Since 1997, he has earned more than $24 million at Lone Star Park alone.
He and his wife, Julie, bought their first home in Arlington about 15 years ago. They still live in Arlington, where they are raising their three sons, aged 13, 15 and 17.
“Lone Star is what brought us to the Arlington area,” Asmussen said. “This is home.
“It’s a great spot with great people and it’s where we wanted to raise our family.”
While things are going well now, that wasn’t the case two years ago.
That’s when People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals accused Asmussen and an assistant trainer, Scott Blasi, of subjecting horses in their care to cruel treatment, improperly administering drugs and having a jockey shock horses to make them run faster.
PETA officials said they learned of the problems during an undercover investigation in 2013, when a hidden camera in Asmussen’s barn showed widespread mistreatment of horses.
PETA made 14 allegations against the Asmussen Stable, including claims that a jockey raced with an electrical shocking device and that the stable gave horses pain-masking and performance-enhancing drugs.
As he dealt with the investigation and allegations, Asmussen said he found out who he could count on for support.
“Through any difficulty … you learn who you can lean on,” he said. “I’m very proud of all the support I got through this.”
In 2014, PETA presented 14 allegations against the Asmussen Stable — including claims that a jockey raced with an electrical shocking device, the stable trained and raced horses through injuries and pain and that the stable gave horses pain-masking and performance-enhancing drugs.
The allegations prompted officials to remove Asmussen from consideration for the Hall of Fame that year.
Last November, the New York State Gaming Commission said most of PETA’s claims were “largely unfounded.” But officials did find that four allegations had merit, including that Thyroxine, a thyroid hormone, was administered within 48 hours of racing and without evidence of medical need.
The commission fined Asmussen $10,000 for administering the hormone to horses within 48 hours of racing and said it will pursue “sweeping equine drug medication regulations.”
Asmussen is looking to the future — and to heading back to the Kentucky Derby, where he has had horses place second and third, but never first, before.
And he’s pleased to be back on the list of 2016 Hall of Fame finalists, surrounded by jockeys and fellow trainers.
Ten finalists were chosen by the Hall of Fame’s 16-member nominating committee from 82 initial candidates suggested by fans, journalists and those in the industry, according to the Hall of Fame.
“It’s a great honor,” Asmussen said. “For a trainer to be put in there. … I wouldn’t even begin to know where the thanks should start.”
PETA officials are asking the Hall of Fame officials to again withdraw Asmussen’s nomination, saying his statistics can’t be disputed, but “there should be much more to being recognized as one of the elite of racing than simply high volume,” Guillermo wrote.
Those chosen to be inducted into the Hall of Fame will be announced Monday, April 25, officials say.
The induction ceremony for the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame is Aug. 12 in Saratoga Springs.
“I hope he makes it in the Hall of Fame,” said Diantha Brazzell, communications manager at Lone Star Park. “He is a stellar horseman and a fantastic person.”
What: 2016 Spring Thoroughbred Season
When: April 7 to July 17, every Friday, Saturday, Sunday and certain Thursdays
Where: Lone Star Park, 1000 Lone Star Parkway, Grand Prairie
Cost: $5 general admission. Parking, except for valet, is free.
Age requirements: There is no minimum age to enter the Grandstand for live racing, but anyone under 18 must be with a parent. And anyone placing a bet must be 21.
Contact: 972-263-RACE (General Information); 972-263-PONY or 800-795-RACE (for Seating and Dining Reservations); email email@example.com to offer comments or suggestions.