In horse or human terms, Creator was a bit of a â€œlate developer.â€ But WinStar Farm and Bobby Flayâ€™s gray son of Tapit has made the wait for his development more than worth it because he is now a classic winner.
The Steve Asmussen trainee bounced back from a troubled 13th-place run in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands to close from 10th in the Belmont Stakes to defeat Derby rival Destin by a nose in the Triple Crownâ€™s final jewel.
The victory added an exclamation point to a year in which Asmussen will be enshrined in racingâ€™s Hall of Fame. And who could know how many more exclamation points the new Hall of Famer might add in a calendar year that has less than six months to go.
It was the second classic win for the Churchill Downs-based Asmussen, who collected his first with eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, who defeated Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense in final strides of the 2007 Preakness.
But the 3-year-old that provided Asmussen, WinStar and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. with Saturdayâ€™s Belmont Stakes triumph did not inspire phrases like â€œDerby hopeâ€ or â€œTriple Crown talentâ€ when he launched his career in a grass race last September at Churchill Downs.
Creator did not earn a trip to the winnerâ€™s circle until his sixth career start, a come-from-behind triumph at Oaklawn Park in late February. But Asmussen knew from the start that the winner of the longest of the Triple Crown races â€“ the 1 1/2-mile event dubbed â€œTest of the Championâ€ â€“ needed races of significant distance to reach his potential. That is why the colt started his road to his classic win with a pair of two-turn races on turf and has never run at a distance less than a mile and 70 yards.
His Kentucky Derby disappointment had been preceded by a late-charging triumph in the Arkansas Derby at 1 1/8 miles that stamped him as a major player for the Run for the Roses.
On the morning after the Belmont triumph, Asmussen told reporters that his major concern was Creatorâ€™s mindset following his rough-and-tumble Derby journey. But Creator rewarded his trainer for that ongoing faith in his ability.
â€œI was disappointed that we may have lost our window in the Derby with this horse, so Iâ€™m glad that he didnâ€™t sour off of that trip, which easily he could have,â€ Asmussen said. â€œFor the Belmont, they talk about giving them time. Five weeks off the Derby ainâ€™t a lot of time.
â€œHe didnâ€™t sour. He was willing to do it again, and he didnâ€™t hold it against us. And it worked out for him.â€
One of the major disappointments in Asmussenâ€™s career has been a narrow loss in the 2007 Belmont by eventual two-time Horse of the Year Curlin. That colt was edged by Kentucky Oaks-winning filly Rags to Riches following a riveting duel through the homestretch.
Since that race, the image of Rags to Riches has been part of a collection of portraits of Belmont Stakes winners displayed on the wall of the clubhouse at Belmont Park, the home of the Triple Crownâ€™s final jewel. After that disappointing 2007 near-miss with one of the best horses of his Hall of Fame career, Asmussen now has an opportunity to go out of his way to stroll past that wall â€“ and to smile while doing so.
â€œI cannot wait to walk by that wall,â€ Asmussen said on Sunday. â€œI’ll actually stop next year and look at the pictures, for obvious reasons.â€
Significant opportunities for Asmussen to sustain his current smile loom this Saturday in Churchill Downsâ€™ annual â€œDowns After Darkâ€ celebration headed by the $500,000, Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap, one of Americaâ€™s top races for older horses. The Fosterâ€™s winner earns a â€œWin and Youâ€™re Inâ€ bid to compete in this fallâ€™s $6 million Breedersâ€™ Cup Classic (GI) at Santa Anita.
While Asmussen will not have a starter in the eveningâ€™s biggest show, two of his stableâ€™s top stars will compete in races during the nightâ€™s schedule of five major stakes events.
One is 2014â€™s Longines Kentucky Oaks (GI) winner and champion 3-year-old filly Untapable, who will attempt to snap a six-race losing streak in the 41st running of the $200,000 Fleur De Lis for fillies and mares. That Grade II event at a mile and an eighth will provide its victor with a Breedersâ€™ Cup â€œWin and Youâ€™re Inâ€ berth for the $2 million Breedersâ€™ Cup Distaff (GI) at Santa Anita.
Untapableâ€™s frustrating string of setbacks includes four runner-up finishes. But Winchell Thoroughbredsâ€™ homebred star has a perfect record in three races over the main track at Churchill Downs and seems to be in a good spot for a return to the winnerâ€™s circle.
Also competing for Asmussen on Saturday will be Gun Runner, a gallant third to Nyquist in Kentucky Derby 142, who will begin the second half of his 3-year-old season with a run in the Grade III Matt Winn for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles. The Louisiana Derby (GII) winner has won four of six races with his only setbacks coming in his strong Derby run â€“ an effort in which he turned for home with the lead â€“ and a fourth-place finish in the slop in last fallâ€™s Kentucky Jockey Club (GII).
Other Saturday highlights include the $200,000 Wise Dan (GII), the former Firecracker now named in honor of Morton Finkâ€™s two-time Horse of the Year. The raceâ€™s namesake will visit with fans in the Churchill Downs paddock during the race that now bears his name.
The Grade III Regret for 3-year-old fillies on turf rounds out the eveningâ€™s stakes events.
Also set for Saturday is the renewal of the Stephen Foster Handicap tradition in which the engraved winnerâ€™s trophies will be presented to the owner, trainer, jockey and breeder of the Kentucky Derby winner. Trainer Doug Oâ€™Neill will be at Churchill Downs on Saturday to accept this yearâ€™s trophies for Team Nyquist.
That special moment is one that the new Hall of Famer Asmussen has yet to savor. But he turned 50 only last November, which will make him one of the youngest inductees in the history of racingâ€™s Hall of Fame when he is formally enshrined on August 12 in Saratoga Springs, New York.
So with regard to Asmussenâ€™s ongoing search for a Kentucky Derby winner â€“ the only Triple Crown race that has managed to elude him â€“ time is on his side.
Nevertheless, consider it a sure bet that Asmussen is working hard toward achieving that elusive goal as you read these words. After all, the 143rd Kentucky Derby is set for Saturday, May 6, 2017 â€“ just over 320 days from now. VT
Photos by AMBER CHALFIN