Skip Dickstein

HOF: Emotions Get the Best of Asmussen

Asmussen joined by Ramon Domiguez, connections of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta

About 24 hours before the start of the Aug. 12 Hall of Fame induction ceremony, inductee Steve Asmussen said he didn’t have a speech prepared. Any efforts on that front, the trainer said, ended up in the waste basket.

“Whatever I wrote, wasn’t me,” Asmussen, 50, said at his Saratoga Race Course barn Aug. 11. “I have to be myself.”

Being himself certainly was the way to go, as Asmussen and his wife, Julie, who introduced her husband at the proceedings, both drew standing ovations and tears from the audience with their poignant, and obviously, heartfelt words.

Retired jockey Ramon Dominguez followed Asmussen and he, too, commanded ovations and admiration from the crowd for his eloquent acceptance speech.

Family and friendships were a continuing theme at the nearly two-hour ceremony at Fasig-Tipton’s Humphrey S. Finney Sales Pavilion in Saratoga Springs, N.Y. Tom Durkin, once again, served as the master of ceremonies.

Joining Asmussen and Dominguez as inductees this year were Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, who never faced each other in competition, but nonetheless were often referred to in the same sentence, due to their shared brilliance on the racetrack.

The Pillars of the Turf Hall of Fame honorees were Arthur B. “Bull” Hancock Jr. of Claiborne Farm, and William Woodward Sr., the breeder of two Triple Crown winners. As part of the Hall of Fame’s homage to historic honorees, the racehorse Tom Ochiltree and jockey Wayne D. Wright were inducted.

The speech from Julie Asmussen, who is cancer-free after months of treatment for neck and throat cancer, was emotionally driven and, at times, spoken directly to her husband, who sat before her in the front row of the pavilion.

The mother of three sons reminded her husband, “It makes me smile to think about going through the McDonald’s drive-through with you in a limo after the Dubai World Cup.” She also recalled the time early in his career, when she was his only hotwalker.

She explained to the crowd that horse racing and family are her husband’s biggest passions, and that his drive to succeed has always been strong.

“You never give up, no matter what the battle will be,” she said to her husband before referencing a Nelson Mandela quote, she likened to her spouse’s determination to be the best he can. “It always seems impossible, until it is done. You defied the odds, you did.”

She spoke of Asmussen’s lessons to their sons, Keith, Darren, and Erik, on not giving up. When the trainer lost several races in one day, and one of his sons said, “Dad, you didn’t win any races today," Julie Asmussen said her husband responded, “We don’t give up, we’ll try again tomorrow.”

As Asmussen came to the podium, so did his sons, and the eldest, Keith, helped him put on the traditional Hall of Fame jacket for new inductees.

The trainer, who thanked his wife first, was emotional at times, and had to stop to have a drink of water, given to him by his wife, to regain his composure. His parents, Keith and Marilyn, were in the audience and their youngest son became choked-up again when he discussed his early life with them on their Texas farm and the fine examples they set for both he and his older brother, Cash, a retired Eclipse Award-winning jockey.

“The story to try to explain my dad and my mom,” Asmussen said in a shaky voice. “My mom…thank you for the faith you have given us…”

He teared up again when talking about his father’s work ethic.

“The examples our father set for us, as young kids … he’s a definition of a true man,” Asmussen said. “Standing here and being honored, is putting my parents in the Hall of Fame.”

As Asmussen often does in conversations about his stable, he thanked a multitude of his employees, including longtime assistants, Scott Blasi, Darren Fleming, and Toby Sheets, and many of his owners for their support over the years, including Bob and Lee Ackerley, the late Jess Jackson and his wife, Barbara Banke, and the Winchell family.

“I am the furthest away from doing this myself,” Asmussen said.

And, of course, the Hall of Fame’s newest trainer, didn’t leave out the horses.

“Horses do things for us that we can't do for ourselves,” he said. “I think everybody in this room understands that. How are we the ones so blessed to be chosen to be given this opportunity?”

Dominguez, 39, followed Asmussen, and had the crowd laughing about a story that detailed his fear of flying, and the time he found himself on a tiny plane, returning from riding in an out-of-town race.

But it was Dominguez’s sincerity in describing what the honor bestowed upon him meant, that was the most endearing part of his speech. He said besides being a procrastinator, the reason he hadn’t prepared a speech beforehand was because he became emotional when he thought about the career that yielded him 4,985 victories before he was forced to retire due to a brain injury in 2013.

“The reason I have not prepared my speech is because every time that I decided to do it, I would reflect back on my career and I would start to cry,” said Dominguez, who later spoke in his native tongue to his friends, family, and fans in Venezuela. “Tears of joy, nothing bad.

“Horse racing has given me so much joy that one only can dream about,” he added. “So many people to thank. I will start with my family. I come from the best parents in the world. I hit the lottery there with my parents.”

Dominguez’s wife, Sharon, their two sons, and his mother were in attendance. He was introduced by his longtime agent Steve Rushing. In a truly touching moment, at the end of his acceptance speech, Dominguez dedicated the honor of his Hall of Fame inclusion to Rushing.

The present-day equine inductees, Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, were represented by their owners, Barbara Banke of Stonestreet Farms and Jerry and Ann Moss, respectively.

The audience cheered at different points of the video presentations, which chronicled the amazing careers of both females.

“She was so courageous and determined. I think courage is the main thing that strikes me about her,” said Banke of the 2009 Horse of the Year, who was trained by Asmussen, and campaigned by her and her late husband, Jess Jackson. “She inspired young girls and women everywhere. I still remember the banners up and down the street in Saratoga, ‘Run Like a Girl.’ ”

Ann Moss spoke first about Zenyatta, the 2010 Horse of the Year, and was followed by her husband, Jerry, the co-founder of A&M Records.

“People say (the name) Zenyatta doesn't mean anything, but I think it describes her perfectly,” Ann Moss, who cried during her speech, said of the name inspired by The Police’s album, “Zenyatta Mondatta.” “She has that Zen, that inner piece of knowing exactly who she is, and having that love that flows from her. And the Yatta, I understand that means celebration. We have a lot to celebrate.”

Earlier in the ceremony, Dell Hancock, whose older sister, Clay, died Aug. 8 at 71, accepted the plaque on behalf of their late father, Arthur B. “Bull” Hancock Jr.

“Daddy was a man who loved land, he loved horses, he loved horse people, and he loved this game of racing,” Hancock said. “He worked hard to bring out the very best of everybody who was around in the land, the horses, and the people. If he were here today, I think he would be very honored.”

Accepting on the behalf of historic inductee, jockey Wayne D. Wright, was his son-in-law, Frank Oakes.

“Wayne was a shy man,” Oakes said. “If he were alive today, he wouldn't be standing here in front of you. He preferred to spend his time with horses.”

Townsend Bancroft, the great-grandson of Pillar of the Turf inductee, William Woodward Sr., the breeder of Triple Crown winners, Gallant Fox and Omaha, shared a passage from his great-grandfather’s journal that read, in part, “The first race that I really remember was the Belmont Stakes of (1888), in which Sir Dixon, the winner, and Prince Royal, provided a stirring contest. I remember the colors and the whole scene. It was run in glorious sunshine.”

Michael Veitch, the chairman of the Hall of Fame historic committee, accepted the plaque presented to Tom Ochiltree, who was originally purchased for $500, and later won the 1875 Preakness Stakes.

“For Tom, we welcome him to the Hall of Fame, to his rightful place among the greats,” Veitch said.