SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen has been a part of many historic moments at Saratoga Race Course, including the memorable victory by Rachel Alexandra in the 2009 Grade 1 Woodward to be become the first filly to win that event; and a record-setting win with Stellar Tap in August 2021 to break the all-time win record for North American trainers.
Asmussen added to his historical accomplishments when Kirk and Judy Robison’s reigning Champion Male Sprinter Jackie’s Warrior became the first horse in history to post a Grade 1 victory in three consecutive years at the Spa as he dazzled with an easy two-length score in the $350,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap under Joel Rosario on Saturday.
“For him to be the first horse ever to have won a Grade 1 three years in a row at Saratoga, it’s just putting him in a room of one,” said Asmussen outside his barn on Sunday morning. “We’re just extremely proud of him and we’re very fortunate to be a part of him. It’s quite the legacy.”
Jackie’s Warrior, whose other Grade 1 victories at Saratoga were the 2020 Hopeful and 2021 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial, also boasts a perfect 5-for-5 record at the hallowed racetrack, owning Grade 2 wins in the 2020 Saratoga Special and the 2021 Amsterdam. A win in the Grade 1, $600,000 Forego on August 27 would put him on even terms with Fourstardave, known as the “Sultan of Saratoga,” for the most stakes victories by a single horse at Saratoga according to Equibase records, which date to 1976.
Asmussen said along with Jackie’s Warrior’s impressive speed, his mental capabilities have allowed him to reach the heights he has.
“He’s an extremely intelligent horse that understands what he’s doing, enjoys it a great deal, and thrives doing it,” Asmussen said. “His demeanor pre-race, during the race, and after the race is so consistent and cooling out after the race, he was obviously very proud of himself, and I don’t think they got to the bottom of him.”
The Vanderbilt was the first half of a graded stakes sweep on the day for Asmussen, who sent out Epicenter to a redemptive win in the Grade 2, $600,000 Jim Dandy just one race later with Rosario tasked with the ride once again. The son of Not This Time trailed in last-of-4 as Early Voting set moderate fractions up front, but was full of run and strongly ran down his rivals to post a 1 1/2-length score over Zandon.
“They both came out very well and both horses are very pleased with themselves – bright and alert today,” said Asmussen. “It’s a beautiful morning.”
Owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds, Epicenter was runner-up in both the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby and Grade 1 Preakness in May. In the Kentucky Derby, Epicenter closed into a blistering pace set by Summer Is Tomorrow and held off a challenge from Zandon at the top of the lane but was nailed a few strides before the wire by the rail-skimming Rich Strike.
The Preakness was another tough loss for the dark bay colt, who was squeezed at the start and faced traffic issues throughout before coming up 1 1/4 lengths shy of Early Voting. The Jim Dandy saw him get a much cleaner trip from off the pace that resulted in his strong victory, equaling a career-high 102 Beyer Speed Figure.
“The way in which he did it was extremely satisfying. I spoke with Ron [Winchell] last night and this morning, and you saw what we thought was a level of confidence and understanding of what all this racing is about,” Asmussen said of Epicenter’s maturity. “It looks great going forward.”
Asmussen said Saturday was an emotional experience as he reflected on his trainees’ strong performances in front of a buzzing crowd of 37,476 fans.
“It was quite the hour. It was as good as a day could get. The circumstances of yesterday with Jackie’s Warrior being such a prohibitive favorite and with that record on the line was very nerve-racking,” said Asmussen, with a laugh. “You just wanted it for him so much. And then everyone has witnessed Epicenter’s last two races, and for him to walk back in the winner’s circle victorious was a wonderful feeling.”
Asmussen said the plan laid out for Epicenter to continue on to the Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers on August 27 is still on track.
“We had planned on running him in the Jim Dandy as a prep for the Travers,” Asmussen said. “His summer goal has always been the Travers and continues to be.”
As for Jackie’s Warrior, the next five months will be the last that he spends in Asmussen’s barn before retiring to stud at Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky. Asmussen said he is hopeful the son of Maclean’s Music can score an elusive victory in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint in November at Keeneland after finishing an uncharacteristic sixth in last year’s running at Del Mar.
“We’re planning on running him back here in the Forego and he’ll have two more races – the Forego and the Breeders’ Cup Sprint,” Asmussen said. “We want to go into it fresh this year and we’re fortunate that Kirk and Judy Robison allowed us to run him another year. We’re trying to make it worth as much as we possibly can.”
NYRA Press Office
Main Photo: Jackie’s Warrior with Joel Rosario up. (Susie Raisher)