Interviewed by Ken Snyder
For one particular jockey, weight – critical for the majority of riders – comes in two forms: pounds, of course, and another figurative kind, perhaps far, far heavier. That’s a family history among the most famous in the recent history of Thoroughbred racing.
With eight winners so far, Keith Asmussen is in the formative stages of a riding career following in the footprints of major figures past and present.
All smiles: Keith J Asmussen after landing his first career success on Inis Gulaire at Lone Star Park in Texas in July 2020. Photo: Lone Star
His father is Steve Asmussen, the all-time leading Thoroughbred conditioner in North America who is fast closing in on 10,000 career victories.
Keith’s uncle Cash was a garlanded jockey, an Eclipse Award winner as an apprentice in the US before a high-profile career in Europe, where he was a five-time France champion who won the Arc in 1991 on the brilliant Suave Dancer. He retired in 2001 with over 3,000 wins to his name.
Finally – but really first, as without him Keith, Steve, or Cash would not be here – comes grandfather Asmussen, also a ‘Keith’ and a Quarterhorse jockey for 38 years. The family patriarch rode for D. Wayne Lukas before the legendary trainer switched to Thoroughbreds – or “before he was D. Wayne Lukas”, according to the elder Asmussen.
As if to go full circle, the younger Keith Asmussen rode his first winner of 2023 on the Lukas-trained Papa Rocket at Oaklawn on Saturday [Jan 14].
Mind you, if there is any pressure accompanying a famous last name, then the youngest Asmussen says he doesn’t feel it, thanks to excitement about launching his career. Listed as Keith J Asmussen (the ‘J’ is James) to differentiate between himself and other members of the family, the 24-year-old is currently riding at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
“I just feel so blessed to be able to ride,” he said. “It’s such a feeling that is incredibly profound; it’s beyond description. Everything else is noise.”
Keith James Asmussen got his first taste of jockeying in 2020 when he rode six winners from 61 mounts during a two-month stint. However, he postponed making it a full-time pursuit in fulfilment of a promise to a dad who knew all about the racing bug.
“He made me promise that I’d go back to school,” explained the young Asmussen, who needed that one year at the University of Texas (UT) in 2021 to earn a master’s degree in business. “He knew that once I started riding, I wouldn’t want to go back.”
Being an obedient son was not, however, easy or without agonizing second-guessing as Keith wasn’t sure he could go back because of the challenge of maintaining the fitness and physique to return to a career as a jockey.
Proud mom: Julie Asmussen congratulates her son Keith after his first win at Churchill Downs in November 2022. Photo: Churchill Downs media
His degree from UT was the Plan B that many athletes fail to think about. With Asmussen, he was amenable to finishing his education for a very good reason. “I was very gung ho about the major because it can translate to horses,” he said.
Trainers need accountants and the young man, perhaps wise beyond his years, calculated a backup opportunity to be part of the horse racing scene in that capacity if race riding doesn’t work out.
Surprisingly given his background, Asmussen didn’t start riding until he was 16 at his grandfather’s El Primero Training Center in Laredo Texas – but the idea of becoming a jockey was impossible to avoid as soon as he got on a horse.
The question was whether size and weight would be an obstacle, as they had been for his father, who was a jockey in the early 1980s. Keith is tall for a jockey—five feet, ten inches. A temporary impediment to riding, however, was neither height nor weight but something else: “When I went to buy my first pair of jock boots, they didn’t have my size!” he recalled. He had to wait on his tack supplier to order in size 10½.
The literally larger impediment for S.M. Asmussen, as Steve is listed in Equibase records for his brief riding career, is a story of what might have been. Although he rode for only two full years and part of a third, the winningmost trainer in the sport’s history in the US was no slouch in the stirrups. Indeed, he had earnings topping $300,000 in both 1982 and 1983, and rode a career total of 63 winners from just over 700 rides.
Strangely, Keith identifies Covid as a help with his own weight as it allowed him more time to be at the track. “When Covid hit, I was a junior in college and all my classes went remote,” he said.
Off the mark: Keith Asmussen partners Inis Gulaire, trained by his dad, for his first career success in July 2020. Photo: Lone Star“So I came to work for Darren Fleming [Steve Asmussen’s assistant trainer] here at Oaklawn. Before that, I had only galloped horses for my father during the summer and that was two-month stints at a time. During Covid, I finally got to gallop three months in a row. I was starting to get fit enough to ride; I was plenty light.”
That new fitness made possible what Keith had dreamed of when he first began to ride and he “started poking my parents” about a potential riding career.
The summer of 2020 was the beginning of that career for Asmussen. He rode at Lone Star Park, partnering his first career winner on Inis Gulaire on July 26 in a maiden special weight contest at the Texas venue.
As per tradition at the track, Asmussen was then scooped up by fellow jockeys and marched to the paddock to be dipped in the fountain, a tradition which follows a jockey’s first win at Lone Star. Needless to say, Inis Gulaire was trained by Keith’s father, who seemed overwhelmed. “You know the amazing horses we've had and how blessed we've been, this is the greatest win we've ever had," he said.
After Lone Star, Keith went onto Remington Park in Oklahoma before returning to UT in the fall. “The bug bit me pretty bad,” said Asmussen, just as his dad had anticipated. “He knew once I started, it’s a feeling that never leaves you.”
Nevertheless, mom Julie partnered with her husband to steer their son to that final year in Austin, Texas, and UT. “They’re a pretty good team – they don’t usually have split opinions,” said Keith. Promise made; promise kept.
That’s not to say his parents, as well as extended family, haven’t been behind Keith’s dream to ride. More importantly, they have been a full complement of richly experienced instructors.
Enjoying the moment: family and friends in the winners’ circle after Keith’s first victory. Photo: Lone StarKeith describes his uncle Cash’s accomplishments in the saddle as his biggest inspiration. “I joke if I have a fraction of Cash’s talent, I’ll be in business,” he said.
He first started riding at his grandfather’s training center in Laredo where Cash would watch Keith and work with him between breaking babies.
“It was incredibly helpful because you start with no bad habits when you learn to do it the right way the first time around,” said Keith. “I can’t speak enough to how helpful it’s been to help me get to the point where I am now.”
Cash is part of a triumvirate of father and grandfather mentoring Keith. “I would start asking any question and they would already know what I was talking about as far as trying to get a response you want out of your horse,” he said, “giving a specific instance or specific response you want. They would automatically understand what I was asking and what I would want to get out of it.”
Between his first foray into riding and his return to the saddle in 2022, a final year at UT afforded Keith only a spring break spent back riding horses at grandpa’s base in Laredo.
“He’s incredibly encouraging and pretty emotional about it as well,” said Asmussen. “I love the relationship I get to have with him because of his understanding of race riding.”
The ups and downs and highs and lows, of horse racing were crammed into one very memorable day for Keith back in November at Churchill Downs.
In the first race of the day, he was aboard Alfie Solomons, a horse claimed from trainer Wesley Ward by his dad. “I’d been getting on that horse in the morning and he had been excellent,” he said. “I was like, ‘Dude, I don’t think I can get this horse beat’.”
“It ended up running second. The whole ‘fam’ was there; it was the day before Thanksgiving, and we thought we were going to get our winner. And I get that horse beat in the first race. You’re never more wrong than when you’re sure you’re going to win and another horse wins.”
That, of course, was the ‘low’. The high came seven races later when Asmussen, riding the fourth betting choice in a six-horse field, Tonal Impact, streaked from off-the-pace in the stretch at Churchill Downs to win by a neck.
Making the win extra special was the horse was trained by his dad.“Congratulations, buddy,” was the trainer’s response.
With the close of Churchill Downs’ fall meet, Asmussen moved on to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, where he has also gained a jockey agent, Cody Caudill, as recommended by trainer Ron Moquett and approved by Keith’s dad.
The majority of the time it is expected he will be in his dad’s barn, which he describes as an “uplifting environment, even if it is intense”.
For those who know Steve Asmussen or who have even observed him for any time, ‘intense’ is probably a bit of an understatement.
Like many trainers, but particularly a trainer with his son aboard horses in his barn, a review of replays with a rider is standard.
For Keith, the obvious question is how those replay sessions go, and does he dread them? “It definitely depends,” he said with a laugh.