Kirkpatrick & Co Presents In Their Care: The Assistant Trainer With His Own Eclipse Award - Horse Racing News | Paulick Report

Kirkpatrick & Co Presents In Their Care: The Assistant Trainer With His Own Eclipse Award

Darren Fleming

Not many assistant trainers have an Eclipse Award to show for their efforts. Darren Fleming does.

Steve Asmussen, his boss and an Eclipse winner in 2008 and 2009, ordered replicas made for Fleming and fellow assistant Scott Blasi to emphasize how much each means to the success of his powerhouse barn.

The bronze statuette took on added meaning for Fleming, Asmussen's longest-tenured assistant, on Aug. 6. Fleming saddled Shanghai Dream for the sixth race at Ellis Park and watched him make a stirring last-to-first charge in the six-furlong, $19,500 race that allowed Asmussen to tie Dale Baird for the all-time lead in North American victories with 9,445. When the mark fell to Asmussen at Saratoga Race Course the next day, it fulfilled a seemingly outrageous goal the trainer had outlined to Fleming decades before.

The two young men were having lunch in the late 1980's when Asmussen expressed his ambition. “I want to be the best. I want to win more races than anybody,” Asmussen told Fleming. “I want to be the leading trainer ever.”

Fleming could not quite believe what he was hearing. “I took it in jest a little bit,” he said. “But he wasn't kidding.”

Fleming began galloping horses for Asmussen, who was then still finding his way as a trainer, before joining him full-time approximately 20 years ago as an assistant. With each passing season, he came to appreciate how serious Asmussen was about making an indelible mark on the game.

Darren Fleming's Eclipse. Photo courtesy of Fleming

Fleming said of the record they now build on almost daily with a far-flung stable: “That was the goal the whole time. It's always been mentioned. In the last year, year and a half, it just kept coming closer and closer.”

The more Fleming got to know Asmussen, the more he realized that anything and everything was possible for him.

“He has an intensity level that is second to none,” Fleming said. “Like he says, 'Everything matters.' He goes to work every day with the same intensity as the day before. And that is what he expects from everybody, from the top to the bottom.”

Fleming also brings tremendous passion to racing. His father, William, was a jockey. Kerry, his wife of 30 years, received an inkling of what she was getting into on Thanksgiving Day, 1985. Soon after the meal ended, her future husband excused himself.

“I have to leave,” he told her. “I have to go water the horses.”

“It's Thanksgiving,” she reminded him.

“Well, the horses don't know it's Thanksgiving,” he responded. And he was off.

Fleming and Asmussen get along so well because of the drive they share. Fleming acknowledged that he is “probably a workaholic.” On a recent day, he and Asmussen already had spoken four times before 10 a.m. Fleming currently oversees 40 horses at Ellis Park and another 40 at Remington Park as part of an operation that numbers approximately 300 horses. Asmussen receives updates and provides instructions on every horse every day.

Fleming admits that it can be challenging to keep to Asmussen's torrid pace.

“Everybody has a tired day or a tired weekend,” he said. “But the rewards you get from racing outweigh everything. It's fun winning.”

Although loyalty can be fleeting in racing, Fleming never seriously considered leaving.

“It just feels natural by now. It's like walking,” he said of his position. “I don't think I could ever work for anybody else. Everything he does makes sense. If I was working for other people, some of the things they do just don't make sense for me.”

There are times when Asmussen makes the game look easy. Fleming knows better.

“I see what a tough game it is. I see how quick the tide can turn,” he said. “I get to be around most of the top horses at one point or another. It's just a great experience.” They produced the Horse of the Year on four occasions. Two-time honoree Curlin (2007-08) was immediately followed by the magnificent filly Rachel Alexandra in 2009 and later by Gun Runner (2017). Other than the Kentucky Derby, there are few major races the barn has not won.

Asmussen and his wife, Julie, foster a family atmosphere that contributes to success. Kerry and Julie shared babysitting duties when they were starting their families. Fleming had each of Asmussen's three sons work under his tutelage at one time or another.

“We are family,” Kerry said.

In another nod to Fleming and Blasi, Asmussen named his middle son Darren Scott.

“Everything we've gone through together, we got here collectively. What we've learned, we've learned together, from each other,” Asmussen said. “It's a beautiful feeling to have everybody pulling on the same end of the rope all the time.”

Perhaps some corporations could learn from Asmussen's business model.

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“Steve treats them right, pays them right, appreciates them,” Kerry said. “It's such a fair deal all the way around.”

Asmussen has always understood that a trainer can only be as good as those he employs. “It makes everything we've done possible,” he said. “It's improved the small things and made the biggest thing possible.”

Even when the biggest thing of all was once hard to fathom.

Tom Pedulla wrote for USA Today from 1995-2012 and has been a contributor to the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Blood-Horse, America's Best Racing and other publications.

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