Downs’ GM of Racing has learned from the very best

RACING GURU: Mitch Dennison arrived at Louisiana Downs this season with a deep knowledge of the sport gained from his association with two of America’s legendary horsemen.

By TONY TAGLAVORE, Journal Sports

Imagine getting an up-close look at horses trained by two of racing’s Hall of Famers — and being only 16.

Mitch Dennison doesn’t have to imagine that life. He’s lived it.

“My mother was the gap attendant at Churchill Downs,” Dennison remembered. “The gap she worked was the D. Wayne Lukas gap. I remember watching (Lukas) on this gorgeous pony, with a whole group of nine or 10 riders. They were standing at the gap. (Lukas) walked up to me on his pony, and let us walk around his barn to look at horses, and to pet horses. I was seven or eight years old. He really inspired me when I saw how he handled himself — on the business side as well as (being) a trainer.”

A few years later, Dennison was ponying at Churchill Downs. “The (Steve) Asmussen horses, when they came over with the braids in their manes — with these beautiful white bridles — these horses were walking over to the frontside. I said, ‘I want to be in that barn.’ I told one of the people I was working with, ‘I want to work with that trainer.’ The girl said, ‘You can’t do that.’ I said, ‘Watch me.’”

A couple of years later, the girl was watching as Dennison worked for Asmussen, thoroughbred racing’s all-time winningest trainer.

Originally from Louisville, Ky., Dennison has brought his love of horses — and horsemen — to Louisiana Downs. As the General Manager of Racing, Dennison serves as a liaison between people on the backside, and track management.

“My goal is to revitalize racing in the state, as well as at Louisiana Downs,” Dennison said. “As GM of Racing, I’m supposed to have a partnership between the company and the horsemen. The majority of places have horsemen that respond directly to a casino person. D. Wayne Lukas says (the racing industry) has a lack of leadership and accountability . . . He says we have corporate people in management positions who do not understand horse racing, horses, and horsemen.”

But the question has to be asked: Why would Dennison leave the Asmussen barn after 12 years as a right-hand man for the sport’s best trainer?

The answer is found in a two-year break Dennison took from racing. When he returned, his desire was not so much to get a horse to the winner’s circle as it was to ensure the horse — and those who took care of it — got treated right.

“I knew I wanted to be in the industry, but I came back with different goals,” Dennison said. “I was more intrigued and involved with the integrity and safety of horse racing and started to include myself in the horsemen’s meetings and association meetings from my position as an assistant.”

Those goals have led Dennison to Bossier City, where he has managed Asmussen’s stable in the past.

Dennison plans on taking what he’s learned from the renowned trainer and using it to help him become the best GM of Racing.

“Steve Asmussen has taught me leadership, as well as sportsmanship. The horsemanship inside his operation — which obviously shows in the results — is the horse first. It has been a pleasure working for him for such a long time. His attention to detail, and the leadership and organizational skills in his operation, made me the person I am today.”

And Dennison has the support and confidence of his former boss.

“I am very excited that they would recruit somebody with Mitch’s perspective into the frontside,” Asmussen said. “He’s got a great work ethic and is very knowledgeable. I think he will be a great service to racing from that position.”

Even though Dennison is in management, don’t look for him to be working inside Louisiana Downs very often. At his core, Dennison is a man of the horses.

“I’m not a corporate guy who comes from a corporate company. I want to be out there with the horsemen. I want to be out there watching training in the morning and managing it when things are going on at the track . . . that’s what really makes a difference. You can’t be in an office and know how the backside functions and what’s going on day-to-day if you’re in the office.”

However, Dennison’s new job will allow for perhaps a bit more rest. When working for Asmussen, Dennison would get up at 3:45 a.m. and be at the track at 4:30.

“I’m never going to be a person who sleeps in. A little more balance is what I’m looking forward to.”

And Dennison usually does what he sets out to do. Just ask that girl at Churchill Downs.

Louisiana Downs races Saturday through Tuesday. Weekend post time is 1:45. Weekday post time is 3:05.

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