Six Stakes Lineup with over $1 Million in Purses
By Gary West, national Turf writer
Houston, Texas -- January 21, 2022 -- Essentially and fundamentally, festivals are celebrations — sometimes raucous, sometimes somber, but always celebratory. Celebration is the theme, the reason for pulling out the tambourines: And there’s much to celebrate at Sam Houston.
The Ice Festival in Harbin, China, celebrates ice sculptures; Cinco de Mayo in Mexico celebrates ancestors; King’s Day, or Koningsdag, in The Netherlands celebrates the birthday of King Willem-Alexander; Mardi Gras in New Orleans celebrates joy and pleasure in a powerful and simultaneous final surge before 40 days of austerity. And so what do you think the Sam Houston Racing Festival celebrates?
Letruska on her winning stretch run at last year’s Houston Ladies Classic
Yes, of course, but not only horse racing. With six stakes races offering purses of more than a million bucks all grouped on a single festive day, Jan. 30, and with some of the nation’s finest racehorses, jockeys, and trainers all converging on a corner of Harris County for this single festive day, this event, more than anything else, celebrates racing at Sam Houston, where last year handle increased 28 percent and purses 42 percent, and it celebrates racing in Texas, where purses will have more than doubled over three years. It celebrates the great horses that have passed through here on their journeys of conspicuous accomplishment, horses such as Midnight Bisou, who began her championship season with a victory in the 2019 Houston Ladies Classic, the first of her seven consecutive stakes wins. She concluded her career with an Eclipse Award and a record of 13 wins, six seconds, and three thirds in 22 starts, with earnings of $7,471,520. The festival celebrates horses such as Forever Unbridled, who won the 2016 Houston Ladies Classic under jockey Joel Rosario and who was later named the champion older female after earning $3,468,880 in her career. It celebrates Letruska, who won last year’s Houston Ladies Classic by more than three lengths and who went on to win the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park, the Ogden Phipps at Belmont, the Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs, the Spinster at Keeneland, and the Personal Ensign at Saratoga in a campaign that will probably earn her an Eclipse Award as the outstanding older filly or mare of 2021.
The Houston Racing Festival celebrates millionaires such as Big Picture, Chorwon, and Da Big Hoss, who all won the John B. Connally.
Turf Cup. Big Picture, in fact, won it three times, and Chorwon twice. It celebrates millionaires such as Serengeti Empress, Lady Apple, Joyful Victory, and Unbridled Mo who all ran in the Houston Ladies Classic. It celebrates jockeys such as Rosario, Mike Smith, Jose Ortiz, Florent Geroux, Julien Leparoux, Robby Albarado, Julie Krone, Jorge Velasquez, Calvin Borel, Flavien Prat, Rosie Napravnik, and Ricardo Santana, who all rode here during the festival for such trainers as Todd Pletcher, Mark Casse, Tom Amoss, Brad Cox, Wayne Catalano, Dallas Stewart, Kenny McPeek, and Mike Maker. Yes, it’s a long procession of horses, jockeys, and trainers, all distinguished and many on the way to the Hall of Fame, if not already there, a long procession indeed, but what’s a festival without a parade?
And the Houston Racing Festival celebrates Steve Asmussen, who was at Sam Houston on opening day, April 29, 1994, along with his modest stable, and has raced here ever since. He grew up in Laredo, and as he often points out, he loves Texas.
Last year, Asmussen became the sport’s all-time leading trainer. In other words, he has saddled more winners than anybody in the history of racing in North America — 9,600 and counting, or about twice as many as legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas. No active trainer has had more Horses of the Year, no trainer has won more training titles, and no trainer has won more races in Texas than Asmussen. A member of the sport’s Hall of Fame and a two-time Eclipse winner, he’s planning to be here for the Racing Festival and to send out several horses in the day’s stakes races. Participation in the festival and Sam Houston’s season is a priority.
And so for the $400,000 Houston Ladies Classic (Grade 3), he’ll saddle Pauline’s Pearl, a multiple stakes winner of $733,000.
“She’s a class act,” Asmussen said about the filly who hasn’t raced since winning the Zia Park Oaks in November. “She’s one of the truly Stonestreet horses,” he added referring to the filly’s breeder and owner. Last April, she won the Fantasy Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn Park, defeating Coach, who’s also possible to make an appearance in the festival.
“She’s a very solid filly,” Asmussen said about the gray daughter of Tapit, “and has just continued to get better with age.”
Although he has nominated two horses to the $200,000 John B. Connally Turf Cup (G3), Asmussen said he probably won’t be represented there. But trainer Mike Maker almost certainly will; he has won the race seven times. Or, to put it another way, he has won 28 percent of all the runnings of the John B. Connally. And Maker has nominated 11 horses to this year’s edition of the 1 1/2-mile showcase event, including the millionaire, multiple stakes-winner Cross Border and a European import named Kygo.
Asmussen said he intends to have two horses for the $200,000 Bob Bork Texas Turf Mile, Down Cold and Red Run. Down Cold won his turf debut here in early January. And Red Run, who raced against some of the best of his generation last year, finished fourth behind highly regarded Tiz The Bomb in his turf debut at Kentucky Downs. Matching newly minted 3-year-olds on the grass, the Bob Bork could be one of the more intriguing races of the day.
For the $100,000 Pulse Power Stakes, Asmussen has strong pair: Archidust, a multiple stakes winner of $485,000; and Grinning Tiger, a stakes winner of $261,00. He has Dr. Frances, owned by Mike Rutherford of Houston, for the $75,000 Jersey Lilly Turf Stakes. And for the $75,000 Stonerside Stakes, Asmussen has another powerful pair: County Final, a stakes winner of $340,000 who most recently finished second at Oaklawn Park; and Texas champion Direct Dial, a stakes winner of $542,000.
On that opening day in 1994, when Asmussen was still in his 20s and just getting started as a trainer, when to look at him even then it was hard to imagine that he was once a jockey, but he was, and when just a brief conversation would have sufficed to let you know, or at least surmise, that this mop-headed guy from one of Texas racing’s most prominent families would have an impact on the game, yes, even back then it was all inevitable. But something happened that day to hasten the inevitable. In the fourth race, Asmussen sent out the favorite, a horse named Firsttimeeverytime. He rallied strongly, but just missed, finishing a head behind Wire Squire, who was owned by Bob and Lee Ackerley of Houston. And so that day, opening day at Sam Houston, Asmussen met the Ackerley brothers.
He became their trainer and purchased horses for them, and one of those horses, Valid Expectations, became Asmussen’s first major stakes winner. Yes, Sam Houston racing has much to celebrate — terrific competitors, outstanding racing, a rich history, and a bright future.
Post time at Sam Houston on Houston Racing Festival Day, Sunday, January 30 is 1:45 pm. Parking and admission are free.