LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Steve Asmussen grew up in a barn in dusty Laredo, Texas. He and older brother Cash were the help in their parents’ Ma-and-Pa stable. Nearly 4,000 miles away, Patrick O’Neill watched from Hawaii as his Uncle Doug made his way up the training ranks.
The families’ worlds collide in the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.
Asmussen, a Hall of Famer on the verge of becoming the sport’s winningest trainer, saddles Super Stock, co-owned by his 79-year-old father Keith. Doug O’Neill, a two-time Derby winner, brings Hot Rod Charlie, co-owned by Patrick and spotted at auction by his brother Dennis.
“We never, ever imagined we’d be able to compete at this level coming from Laredo, Texas,” said Marilyn Asmussen, Steve’s 79-year-old mother who began training horses in 1976 when few women had that job or were respected for it. Her husband was a jockey and still breaks yearlings.
Patrick O’Neill, an enthusiastic yet hardened owner at 28, says, “We’re treating this like it is, which is a once-in-a-billion opportunity.”
Asmussen is trying to snap an 0-for-21 skid in the Derby. His best finishes were a pair of seconds in 2011 with Nehro and in 2017 with Lookin At Lee.
“I’m somebody who learns far more from a loss than a win,” he said.
Having his parents and their longtime partner, Nashville music manager Erv Woolsey, along for the ride has turned the usually stern Asmussen downright mushy. His son, Keith, rode Super Stock in his first three races, including a stakes victory in Texas.
“I was scared for him,” said Steve, who gave up as a jockey after growing too tall and heavy.
“I called my grandfather and told him what I wanted for Christmas, to ride him in a race,” the younger Keith said. “I’d like to think I played some part in Pop and Erv keeping him.”
Instead of selling Super Stock, the bay colt stayed in the family and gave Keith and Marilyn Asmussen their first Grade 1 victory as owners in the Arkansas Derby, punching his ticket to Louisville. The family celebrated together for the first time since the coronavirus pandemic began a year ago.
“Amazing how the actions of a horse can make you feel about yourself,” Steve said on a recent Breeders’ Cup podcast. “What a true blessing that is.”
While Steve eventually found success training, brother Cash was a star rider in France, winning some of Europe’s biggest races in the 1980s and ’90s.
“The success that I’ve had and the success that Cash had before me were made possible because of the horsemanship and professionalism of my parents,” Steve said. “That kind of support, that kind of love is what encourages people to dream and to chase it.”
Patrick O’Neill loved racing from a young age. He’s named for his late grandfather, who he says “definitely had a little bit of a gambling problem.” The elder Patrick brought his four sons — Dave, Danny, Dennis and Doug — to the racetrack as kids in Detroit.
“My dad (Dave) saw what happened with gambling and was turned off,” Patrick said. “Dennis and Doug saw all the excitement and the characters.”
Dave and Danny died of melanoma. Dennis and Doug eventually moved to California, with Doug becoming a trainer and Dennis a bloodstock agent. Patrick grew up in Hawaii, but kept in touch with his uncles and attended the Derby when Doug won in 2012 with I’ll Have Another and in 2016 with Nyquist.
Patrick followed racing through his college days at Brown University, where he played football. He bugged his bemused roommates and teammates Eric Armagost, Dan Giovacchini, Reiley Higgins and Alex Quoyeser to add TVG racing channel to their cable package for an extra $6 a month. “That definitely ate into our beer funds,” he said.
He invited his buddies to Del Mar one summer. The horses and ambiance at the seaside track north of San Diego quickly converted them. Someone suggested buying a horse together.
O’Neill said no and tried to tamp down their chatter about entering the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup. He counseled they’d be lucky to win a race at Del Mar.
“I’ve seen what happens in the sport and I didn’t want to lose friends,” he said, “but I quickly changed my mind. Life is about people, memories and experiences.”
The first horse they owned was “godawful,” O’Neill recalled. The next one finished last at Del Mar and was claimed for $100,000, giving them the money that led to the purchase of Hot Rod Charlie.
O’Neill’s group owns 25% of the colt they nicknamed “Chuck.” Their stable Boat Racing LLC (“kind of cheeky” he says) is named after a favorite college drinking game that involves racing to finish drinks in sequence.
They supply the youthful energy to complement more experienced owners Bill Strauss (25%) and Greg Helm of Roadrunner Racing (50%). O’Neill and his friends work corporate jobs on the West Coast.
Dennis O’Neill picked out Hot Rod Charlie for $110,000 at auction. The dark bay colt lost his first three races at Del Mar before winning at Santa Anita.
“Chuck” was a 95-1 shot in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last fall at Keeneland. He finished second to Essential Quality, beaten three-quarters of a length by the early favorite for Saturday’s Derby.
“He was such a prepubescent teen going into the Breeders’ Cup,” O’Neill said. “He’s in his pre-college years and starting to look like an adult.”
And racing like one, too.
“Chuck” won the Louisiana Derby by two lengths to solidify his spot in the Kentucky Derby. He’s finished out of the money just twice in seven career starts and has earnings of over $1 million.
“Chuck” will be cheered on in person by 160 friends and family on Saturday.
“To have this be a family affair and have all our different networks brought in, it would be magical,” O’Neill said of a possible victory. “It would be a movie-like script.”
And if the Asmussens are in the winner’s circle instead?
“When good people have success,” O’Neill said, “it’s fine when you lose.”