Fair Grounds Stars Rachel Alexandra, Asmussen Win Big at Eclipse Awards

Rachel Alexandra, the 2009 Fair Grounds Oaks winner stabled in New Orleans, was named Horse of the Year at the conclusion of Monday’s 39th annual Eclipse Awards at the Four Seasons Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif. The legendary filly’s conditioner, Steve Asmussen, an eight-time leading trainer at Fair Grounds, also won an Eclipse Award as Outstanding Trainer, the second consecutive year he has taken home that honor.

Rachel Alexandra beat the other Horse of the Year finalist, Zenyatta, 130 votes to 99, with two abstentions and one no vote.

Rachel Alexandra’s 2009 campaign took off when she easily won the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks. Seven weeks later she became the fourth of the last five Fair Grounds Oaks winners to also win the Grade I Kentucky Oaks, racing’s most prestigious event for 3-year-old fillies. Rachel Alexandra also scored in the Preakness Stakes, middle jewel of racing’s Triple Crown, and two Grade I events against older males.

Zenyatta, also a female, won the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park in November to remain undefeated in her own storied career.

Rachel Alexandra’s award was accepted by owner Jess Jackson of Stonestreet Stables.

“Together Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta won nine Grade I races,” Jackson said. “Together they conquered four of the best groups of males that were running last year. If you think about their achievements, individually or collectively, there has never been another year like this for fillies. It couldn’t be arranged that they would meet last year. We’re hoping that each horse, taking its course, may win their way to an ultimate match, and maybe we can work toward that.”

Rachel Alexandra arrived at Fair Grounds on Nov. 27 and has been in light training since, jogging and galloping on an almost daily basis. Her first official work could come as early as next week though her first race of 2010 remains undetermined.

Asmussen earned his Eclipse Award not only for his deft handling of Rachel Alexandra, who won all four of her starts under his care, but also for an overall season in which the 44-year-old Texan won 650 races, breaking his own record for wins in a year. Asmussen also trained the recently retired Kodiak Kowboy, who won the Eclipse Award for Champion Male Sprinter.

Asmussen won in a landslide, earning more votes, 130, than every other vote-getter combined. John Shirreffs, trainer of Champion Older Female Zenyatta, was closest to Asmussen with 57 votes.
 
“What a tremendous year it’s been,” said Asmussen, who was accompanied onstage by his wife, Julie, and their three sons—Keith James, Darren Scott and Eric Mark—as well as by top assistants Scott Blasi and Darren Fleming.

“It wouldn’t happen without the work of the assistants,” Asmussen continued. “Last year I should have given the award to Scott and to Darren, but for 20 years I’ve been looking at my brother’s Eclipse and I just had to have one. This year, this Eclipse belongs to Scott and Darren, as well as the other assistants. I wouldn’t want to do it, and I definitely couldn’t do it, without them.”

Asmussen’s brother, Cash Amussen, won an Eclipse Award as Top Apprentice Jockey in 1979.

Asmussen currently leads the trainer standings at Fair Grounds with 25 wins through Monday’s races, six more than Merrill Scherer, and also leads all Fair Grounds trainers by earnings with $950,614.