Ushering 2020 out the door was a welcome relief for pretty much everyone in the universe. The challenges from COVID-19 had a monumental impact on all sports and horseracing was affected greatly. However, Steve Asmussen, who will return to defend his training title at Sam Houston Race Park when the 2021 season begins on Friday, January 8, had an amazingly good year amid the chaos.
Texas has always been important to the conditioner, who was inducted into the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 2016. His parents, Keith and Marilyn, operate a training center in Laredo; Asmussen and his family reside in Arlington and many of Asmussen’s longtime owners are Texans. He has won the training title at Sam Houston 12 times and topped the owner standings in six seasons. On Friday’s opening night card, Asmussen has entered nine runners and another six will run Saturday evening.
Sam Houston Race Park will kick off the 2021 meet with its highest purse structure since it opened in 1994. A total of $12 million will be offered for the 46-day season which runs through Saturday, April 3. House Bill 2463, passed by the 86th Texas Legislature, will contribute $25 million annually to the Texas horse racing industry, split equally between Thoroughbred and Quarter Horse interests.
“The supplement to the purses gives us a wonderful product,” stated Asmussen. “The Bill allocates tax revenue from equine sales in Texas to support Texas racing. We need to promote this as a viable alternative to depending on casino revenue. The substantial purse increases have attracted new horsemen, which is great.”
Asmussen won 422 races in 2020 topping all North American Thoroughbred trainers in both wins and earnings. His horses earned $20,204,064 with Brad Cox ranking second with earnings of $18,983,832. Karl Broberg, who will also be prominent this season at Sam Houston Race Park, was the second-leading trainer by wins with 327 victories throughout 2020.
“Obviously, we were very proud to lead our sport by both money and wins,” said Asmussen. “The closures and purse cuts were tough on everyone. Our success is based on our motto that “everything matters” and we adhered to that with every member of our team. Our approach and consistency did not waver in 2020.”
Asmussen has won the past two editions of the Grade 3, $300,000 Houston Ladies Classic. In 2019, the victory went to Bloom Racing Stable’s Midnight Bisou, who was honored as the 2019 Eclipse Award winning female and earned $7.4 million in her illustrious career. Last year’s champion, Lady Apple, is on target to defend her title for owners Phoenix Thoroughbred III and KatieRich Stables.
“It’s hard to put into words how much I appreciate the loyalty of my owners,” said Asmussen.
Asmussen is off to his usual fast start in the New Year, currently running horses at Turfway Park, Delta Downs and Fair Grounds in New Orleans. He will have a full barn at Oaklawn Park when it opens on January 22. The 55-year-old horseman counts on longtime assistant, Pablo Ocampo, to oversee the day-to-day operation in Houston.
“I’m looking forward to the 2021 meet at Sam Houston,” said Asmussen. “I have always been pleased with their track surfaces.”
Sam Houston Race Park will welcome back a solid core of horsemen including Karl Broberg, Danny Pish, Kari Craddock, Mindy Willis, Bret Calhoun, Ronnie Cravens, Mike Neatherlin, Allen Dupuy and Robertino Diodoro. New conditioners for the 2021 Thoroughbred meet include Todd Fincher, Frank Lucarelli and Jonathan Wong.
New Faces Join Jockey Colony
The 2021 season will begin without the last two leading riders as David Cabrera, who finished on top in 2020 is headed to Oaklawn Park and two-time champion DeShawn Parker, will ride at Turfway Park. That opens the door for a slew of talented returning jockeys, including Lane Luzzi, Lindey Wade, Iram Diego, Ernesto Valdez-Jiminez, Rudy Guerra, Alfredo Contreras and Danny Sorenson. Several new additions to the Sam Houston Race Park jockey colony include Sophie Doyle, who has made several appearances here for turf stakes; Shane Laviolette, Leandro Goncalves, Ty Kennedy and Reylu Gutierrez.
Stewart Elliott won 13 races here last year and will ride first call for Asmussen this season at Sam Houston Race Park. He had an exceptional 2020, notching his 5,000th career victory on August 10 at Lone Star Park, guiding Bloom Racing Stable’s Power End, trained by Asmussen, to victory. The 55-year-old rider, best known for winning the 2004 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes aboard Smarty Jones, is just the 36th jockey to eclipse 5,000 wins.
“I can’t say enough about Stewart,” added Asmussen. “The success we had last year in Houston was the foundation for our excellent meets at Lone Star and Remington Park. He is a consummate professional and riding at the top of his game.”
Nominations for the Houston Racing Festival Close on Wednesday, January 20
The Houston Racing Festival with six stakes races offering over $1 million in purses, will take place on Sunday, January 31 with a 1:45 pm (Central) post time. The Houston Ladies Classic (G3), now in its ninth running, anchors the Houston Racing Festival, which also includes the Grade 3, $200,000 John B. Connally Turf Cup, the $100,000 Pulse Power Turf Sprint, the $75,000 Jersey Lilly Turf Stakes and $75,000 Stonerside Sprint and the $200,000 Texas Turf Mile. Nominations close on Wednesday, January 20.
The 2021 Thoroughbred Stakes schedule will offer $2.4 million in purses, up from $1.8 million in 2020. The first two features, the $75,000 My Dandy for Texas-bred 3-year-old colts and geldings and the $75,000 Darby’s Daughter for Texas-bred fillies will take place on Saturday, January 30. Both kick off the Clarence Scharbauer, Jr. Texas Stallion Stakes Series and will be contested at the distance of five and one-half furlongs on the main track.
Sam Houston Race Park Post Times and Wagering Format
First post on Friday and Saturday is 6:45 pm (CT). There will be a special 1:45 pm post time for the Houston Racing Festival on Sunday, January 31. Sam Houston Race Park also presents Thursday afternoon races with a 4:00 pm post and the same time for Wednesday afternoons, beginning on February 10.
Sam Houston Race Park was one of the first North American racetracks to initiate an industry-low take-out fee of 12% and will offer win, place, show, exacta, trifecta, superfecta wagers. Rolling daily doubles, pick 3, pick 4 wagers and the Houston High Five will continue in 2021.
However, a change will be made to the Space City Pick 6. Due to the 2020 meet cancellation due to COVID-19, there will be a carryover of $51,876 carryover heading into opening night. Sam Houston Race Park will offer a mandatory payout on the Space City Pick 6 on Saturday, January 9.
Beginning on Thursday, January 14, the Space City Pick 6 will revert to a classic Pick 6 with no jackpot payout option. For more information on wagering and simulcast offerings, visit shrp.com.
(from Sam Houston Race Park news release)