Del Mar, Calif.
When the barns were opened Oct. 23 to take in horses for the fall meet at Del Mar, the usual assortment of southern California trainers and Thoroughbreds moved in right away. Two days later, a well-traveled Hall of Famer, whose presence on the west coast is not exactly regular, made sure he was represented, too.
“We come out here early because of the acclamation,” Steve Asmussen said. “It’s how you feel the timing. Me traveling in years past, east-west, west-east, it’s fatiguing.”
Asmussen himself actually did not arrive at Del Mar until Tuesday. But he was preceded last month by longtime assistant Scott Blasi and six horses headlined by Jackie’s Warrior and Echo Zulu, both morning-line favorites Friday and Saturday for the 38th Breeders’ Cup.
Most of the horses being shipped to California did not arrive until this week. Asmussen made the call to get the jump on them.
“That is our choice,” he said. “That’s our thinking and our choice to be out here so far in advance from just a Pacific Coast time thing.”
His last impression of Del Mar from a championship point of view four years ago was a fond one. That was when Gun Runner led the whole 1¼ miles and won the Breeders’ Cup Classic, giving Asmussen his second victory in the race that he first won with Curlin in 2007. It also clinched Gun Runner the Eclipse Award as Horse of the Year, the fourth such championship for Asmussen.
His 2021 Breeders’ Cup horses, he said, appear ready to go this week, starting with Echo Zulu (4-5) on Friday in the Juvenile Fillies. Odds-on is familiar territory for an Asmussen 2-year-old. At Keeneland last fall, Jackie’s Warrior finished fourth as the 9-10 favorite in the Juvenile.
“She’s got the target on her just like he did last year,” Asmussen said. “It’s quite obvious more than one person rode him last year. She’s got to be ready for the same.”
That was a reference to Ricardo Santana Jr. having been on Jackie’s Warrior for a winning debut before COVID travel restrictions played a role last summer in Joel Rosario taking over the assignment. This time, with Asmussen looking at who has had more experience at Del Mar, Rosario steps in after Santana rode Echo Zulu’s first three races, all wins.
Like last year at Keeneland with Jackie’s Warrior, the Breeders’ Cup will mark Echo Zulu’s two-turn debut. Confidence notwithstanding, no one really knows for sure how that will go for the filly by Gun Runner. In hindsight Jackie’s Warrior proved to be more adept at one turn, but that does not mean it was not worth taking a shot at two.
“The circumstances are different every single time,” Asmussen said. “If this was last year we’d still be running Jackie’s Warrior in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and seeing how it played out. You know the ‘non-winners of three’ that beat him last year in the Juvenile have proven to be pretty damn good horse.”
That droll reference to Essential Quality aside, Jackie’s Warrior (6-5) has turned out to be more than pretty good at shorter distances. If not for trouble at the start of the Grade 1 Woody Stephens on the Belmont Stakes undercard, he might be 9-for-9 going one turn. The 3-year-old Maclean’s Music colt comes into Saturday’s running of the six-furlong Breeders’ Cup Sprint off a 6 3/4-length score in the Grade 2 Gallant Bob on Sept. 25 at Parx Racing in Pennsylvania.
Normally a pacesetter, Jackie’s Warrior should have company early Friday. Asmussen said that a neck win this summer over Dirt Mile favorite Life Is Good in the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial at Saratoga demonstrated that having the lead the whole way was not absolutely necessary.
“He was unbelievably comfortable with the horse in front of him,” Asmussen said. “Joel handled that and handled him perfectly. We obviously loved the outcome of that race, so we’re hoping for something similar. He wasn’t on the lead that day. He’s just really fast. If they’re in front of him, they’re rolling.”
Asmussen will try to beat Life Is Good again, this time with his two horses in the Dirt Mile. Met Mile winner Silver State (7-2) is out to bounce back from finishing third in the Whitney at Saratoga and second in the Parx Dirt Mile. The 6-year-old millionaire Snapper Sinclair (12-1) looks to improve on a close, second-place finish last month in the Grade 2 Eddie D at Santa Anita.
“Parx was just overconfidence on my part just going into it,” Asmussen said about Silver State, who had won six consecutive starts before that. “You see how he’s trained out here, and it’s been aggressive and strong. Coming off of his Whitney he was training aggressive and strong, and we backed off of him, skipped a few works, and it cost him in the Penn Mile, knowing that we didn’t want his Penn Mile to be his Breeders’ Cup (Dirt) Mile. Now we have our chance. I expect an amazing race for him knowing he’s in with some fast son-of-a-guns.”
Where Silver State’s style is to close late, Snapper Sinclair could go forward early. Or not.
“Just like a Swiss Army knife does,” Asmussen said. “Snapper will take advantage of any mistakes anybody makes. He will not have an excuse for anything that happens. Surface. Pace. Anything. Snapper Sinclair was fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile two years ago, and he is a faster and better horse now than he was then.”
Clairière (12-1), a 3-year-old Curlin filly, comes into the Distaff as a long shot after she broke a five-race losing streak by circling five horses in front of her to win the Grade 1 Cotillion on Sept. 25 at Parx. It was her first time back in the winner’s circle since February, when she won the Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. It was also the first time she was reunited with Santana since last fall, when they paired to finish first and second in her first two races.
“He gave her a great trip (in the Cotillion), and she responded,” Asmussen said. “She had competed well against Grade 1 competition all year. It was the difference between her being Grade 1 placed and a Grade 1 winner. It was just a step in the direction that she’s headed.”
Now Clairière steps up to her first race against older fillies and mares, and Asmussen said it is right on schedule.
“We’re talking about who she is and how she’s doing as we face (division leader) Letruska and a great group of mares in a full field,” he said.
Asmussen returns to the Classic for the sixth time with Max Player (8-1), a 4-year-old Honor Code colt whose first two victories this year – the Grade 2 Suburban during the summer in the Belmont slop and the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Saratoga – represented a change of tactics. Instead of having him race as a deep closer, Asmussen called on Santana to race him close to the early lead.
“It’s the circumstances of style changing allowing him to have success,” he said.
How forward placing will translate in the Classic becomes more difficult to gauge, since the favorite Knicks Go, Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit and the resurgent Art Collector could bring plenty of early speed.
“It’s loaded with pace,” Asmussen said. “Everybody obviously sees the same thing. Ninety percent of the time, when everybody sees the same thing, everybody overreacts.”
For that reason, Asmussen said he is happy with Max Player being drawn outside into post 9.
“I love this draw,” he said. “How he’s responded to Ricardo has been the key to his last two wins, his breakthrough wins. With him drawn 9 of 9 and a good run to the first turn, he’ll just ride him. Where that puts you will have to do with the other horses. I think it’s quite obvious he’s a horse that we want him to click off eighths of a mile in 12 (seconds) and just wear them out.”
Now North America’s winningest trainer, Asmussen comes into this week ranked seventh in career Breeders’ Cup earnings with $14,262,180 from an overall record of seven wins, eight seconds and three thirds from 61 starters.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com with more frequent articles this week during the Breeders’ Cup. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week features a pop-up episode available now with Las Vegas bookmakers Chris Andrews, Johnny Avello and Duane Colucci handicapping all 14 championship races. Friday’s regular episode features jockey Mike Smith, trainers Chad Brown, Brad Cox and Bill Mott, workout analyst Bruno de Julio and XBTV’s Zoe Cadman and Jeff Siegel. The RFRP is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.