Kentucky Derby jockey says Catholic faith crucial in dangerous sport

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. (OSV News) — Jockey Keith Asmussen calls on his Catholic faith daily as he competes in the high-stakes world of horse racing, and the sport’s stage gets no bigger than the one he will be on May 4, when he rides in his first Kentucky Derby.

Asmussen has the mount on Just Steel in the $5 million race May 4 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. The 25-year-old earned the opportunity by guiding the promising colt to a second-place finish in the Grade 1, $1.5 million Arkansas Derby March 30.

The Arkansas Derby is the richest race at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, where Asmussen has spent the past five months competing. He ranks as the meet’s second-leading jockey, with 54 victories through April 24. Those wins include the Grade 3, $400,000 Honeybee with Lemon Muffin.

The current Oaklawn season is the best meet Asmussen has had in the saddle since launching his career in 2020.

“I think my faith has gotten a lot stronger since starting this profession — just given that it’s dangerous and even more so than that, it’s very emotionally taxing,” he told Arkansas Catholic, Little Rock’s diocesan newspaper. “You can take it so personal, the outcome of a race, even when there’s so many uncontrollable variables.”

But prayer can counter those anxieties, Asmussen said. He said he finds his faith gives him a sense of humility, understanding “you can only do what you can do,” as well as gratitude.

“I start my day with prayer,” he said. “I’m incredibly thankful to have the opportunity to do what I love and the opportunity to show what talents I have and I pray for the safety of myself and the animals under my care. It kind of sets the attitude for the day.

“When you start with a little gratitude, I feel my days are more intentional and purposeful. I believe it gives me a better sense of direction. I think grounding is the word that comes to mind because it can be a little intense emotionally and I do believe that keeps me even-keeled.”

Asmussen, a native of Arlington, Texas, said both his father, Steve Asmussen, who is North America’s all-time leading trainer in wins with more than 10,000, and his mother, Julie, have been strong examples of faith in his life.

“My mom sends me devotionals every day,” Asmussen said. “I’m spoiled.”

Another marker of the rider’s Catholic faith is the crucifix he wears around his neck at all times, whether exercising horses at a high rate of speed in the mornings at Oaklawn or competing in fast-paced races in the afternoons in Hot Springs.

Asmussen’s home parish is Most Blessed Sacrament in Arlington. Upon graduation from high school, he earned a master’s degree in accounting from the University of Texas at Austin in 2022.

But horses, not numbers, have long been his first love. For a time, Asmussen was uncertain whether his dream of being a jockey would be able to be fulfilled, in large part because at 5-foot-10, he is taller than the average jockey. He prayed he might one day have the chance to ride in races like his grandfather, uncle and father.

“I wanted to be a jockey so bad, but with a large physique, it was seemingly impossible,” Asmussen said. “My faith, it’s kind of helped me realize the cage is made of thoughts. I took a step back, tried my best, and at least I had the security of knowing I tried. It just kind of went from there.

“A horse in the Derby? Are you serious? I just wanted to ride one race when I started!”

Just Steel is a perfect match for Asmussen as he, too, is tall. His build gives him a long stride, and it’s one he’s used to running second in three of the four qualifying races Oaklawn conducts for the Kentucky Derby. Just Steel, like his competition, will be racing farther than ever, competing over a mile and a quarter in the Kentucky Derby.

“He’s a huge, beautiful horse,” Asmussen said. “He has incredible action, a long stride. I think he’ll get the distance well. And, he is coming into the race in great form. He’s a classy, talented horse. I feel like he’ll do his best.”

Mary Rampellini writes for Arkansas Catholic, newspaper of the Diocese of Little Rock.

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