Is Rising Star Cody Autrey the Next Steve Asmussen?

(April 19, 2006) - Rival trainers would not be surprised to learn that when Cody Autrey went to Las Vegas on his honeymoon last month he won $4,000 playing poker. After all, Texas Hold ‘Em is the one diversion Autrey allows himself to revel in for a few hours each week; every other minute, he lives and breathes Thoroughbreds. As the unfortunate souls who sit down with him to play cards have found, Autrey brings to poker the same discipline and assertiveness that has made him one of Lone Star Park’s top horsemen. He studies religiously, calculates constantly and maneuvers deftly. In the end, if you leave yourself open, he’ll find a way to make money off you.

One thing Autrey doesn’t do with horses, though, is hold ‘em. Through aggressive claiming and placement that results in constant turnover, the 26-year-old has quickly built up one of the most formidable stables in Texas. His tireless work ethic, keen eye and growing success have elicited comparisons to the most famous Texas trainer of them all—Steve Asmussen, the national win leader three of the past four years. A comparison of their stats at Autrey’s age suggests there could be a future star building the foundation for Grade I success in Grand Prairie, as Asmussen did in the late 1990s.

Entering the second week of racing, Autrey and Asmussen are tied for first in the Lone Star trainer standings with six wins apiece. Autrey said he won’t be able to hang onto the top spot much longer, but called it “an honor” just to be up there with the likes of Asmussen and Bret Calhoun. If his growth over the past three years is any indication, though, it may only be one or two more seasons until Autrey has the quality and numbers to challenge the leaders here through an entire meet. Currently, Autrey has 47 stalls at Lone Star, just under the maximum of 50 allotted to Asmussen, Calhoun, Danny Pish and Cole Norman.

“I’m not so sure I want more than 50 horses, but I want better quality,” Autrey said. “I want to be able to get some of the 2-year-olds and yearlings that cost some money. Winning will put you in the position to do that. You’re always looking for the next horse in your barn that can win the stakes and put you in the limelight.”

Winning hasn’t been a problem for Autrey the past three years. After two wins in his first season as a trainer here, 2002, and four in 2003, he broke out with 11 at the 2004 spring meet, good enough for a 12th-place tie. He came back to the Fall Breeders’ Cup Meeting to serve notice he would be a force in 2005, posting eight wins in 19 days.

Through it all, Autrey has stuck by his strategy of spotting horses where they can win, even if it means drastically dropping them right off a claim. As a result, he’s been the leading trainer by win percentage here the past two spring seasons (36.7% in 2004 and 32.6% in 2005). Last year, Autrey’s stable exploded for a fifth-place finish with 30 wins, including his first local stakes victory with 2-year-old Premier Dance in the Middleground Stakes.

Learning From the Best

Even though they face each other several times every week during the Lone Star season, Autrey and Asmussen maintain a close friendship. Autrey has long admired Asmussen’s horsemanship and has learned plenty from watching and emulating Lone Star’s all-time leading trainer.

“Steve’s one of my best friends at the track,” Autrey said. “W e do a lot of business together, we talk all the time. He runs his horses where they can win and he’s very competitive. He wants to win every race and I think we’re similar in that respect. We’re competitors and friends. ”

One of the biggest edges that Asmussen and Autrey share is their knowledge of other runners on the grounds. Both trainers are able to place their horses with confidence, knowing what it takes to win at a certain level here and often being able to guess who will enter what spot.

“Steve knows a lot of horses on the racetrack that aren’t his and I try to do the same thing,” Autrey said. “I like to watch other people’s horses as much as I like to watch mine. I might see a horse galloping down the frontside from my pony. If I see that he’s big and pretty and moving real good, then tomorrow I’m going to be looking for him and the next day I’ll be looking for him. And then I want to know his name. I try to keep an eye on everything that goes on. Steve does that very well, too.”

Inside the Numbers: Autrey and Asmussen’s Early Years

Autrey and Asmussen both won their first race at age 20. For Asmussen, it was 1986 at Ruidoso Downs in New Mexico; for Autrey, it was 2000 at Retama Park in San Antonio.

Asmussen grew his stable quickly, starting 147 horses in 1987. By comparison, Autrey only had 44 starters in his first full year of 2001. Both trainers, however, managed to build up their barns considerably in only five years. In their respective third full years, Asmussen won 22 races in 178 starts, while Autrey managed nine wins from 66 starts. The Autrey stable, however, grew exponentially in the trainer’s fourth and fifth years, while Asmussen’s increases were more gradual.

Last year marked Autrey’s fifth full year of training. He won 57 races from 241 starts, a 23% clip, with $1.2 million in earnings. In Asmussen’s fifth full year, 1991, he won 35 races from 210 starts for $222,000.

By the time Lone Star Park opened, Asmussen was established as a top trainer in the Southwest region. He finished fifth at the track’s inaugural season with 17 wins in 1997 and never looked back, adding considerably to his win total every year up to his incredible record-setting season of 2002, when he saddled 95 first-place horses from 425 starters. In Autrey’s best season at Lone Star, last year, he finished 33 wins behind Asmussen.

Autrey said he wouldn’t even dream of ever approaching Asmussen’s staggering overall numbers, but expects to one day have top-quality horses on par with Asmussen’s plethora of graded stakes winners.

“The numbers that I’ve got right now I’m very comfortable with,” Autrey said. “If we’ve got 15 or 20 to take to Keeneland we’ll go, but we’re not going to go there until we can be competitive. You want to take the kind of horses that will win the Grade IIs or Grade IIIs or 2-year-old races. I’ll settle for one big string in Kentucky and one string here, because I always want to race in Texas.”

If Autrey continues to win races at anything near his current rate—55% (six-for-11) through one week at Lone Star—it won’t be a very long wait.

DOWN THE STRETCH: After the first week of racing, defending riding champ Cliff Berry was atop the Lone Star Park jockey standings with seven wins from 22 mounts. Steve Asmussen and Cody Autrey topped the trainer standings with six wins each. Mike Moore and the Wimp Free Racing Stables partnership each won with both of their starters to lead all owners...Agent Ron Anderson reports that the nation’s leading jockey, Garrett Gomez, has accepted the call to ride trainer Doug O’Neill’s Yes I’m a Pistol in the Grade III, $300,000 Texas Mile on April 29...Southern California-based trainer Mike Mitchell has secured Berry to ride Texcess in the Texas Mile and 3-year-old Quest Venture in the $75,000 Grand Prairie Turf Challenge...Entries will be taken Thursday morning for Saturday’s featured live race, the $40,000 Littlebitlively Stakes, a five-furlong turf sprint for 3-year-olds and up that haven’t won a stakes race this year...Two major charitable events will coincide with live racing this week. On Thursday in the Silks Dining Terraces, about 800 guests and celebrities will take part in the annual “Stars of Texas...Racing Against the Odds,” benefiting the American Diabetes Association. On Sunday, also in Silks, “Racing for Sight” will benefit the Retina Foundation...Friday night’s Party at the Park in the outdoor Courtyard of Champions will feature live music by Tropix, a promotional appearance by Live 105.3 Free FM and $1.75 Bud Lights from 7-11 p.m...Saturday is the first of six Budweiser “True Music” Saturday Celebrations in the Courtyard. Mars Hill will perform between live races and 100.3 Jack FM will be on hand from 12-4 p.m...Throughout the season, seniors 62 and up will be admitted free of charge.

by Jim Mulvihill, Lone Star Park, additional reporting by Darren Rogers, Lone Star Park

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