Asmussen Reflects on Meaning of Travers Triumph With Epicenter

August 29, 2022

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y.— When Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen started his first horse, Track Ambassador, at Ruidoso Downs in 1986, he did so with storied racetracks like Saratoga Race Course in the back of his mind as places of legend, hoping to one day make it to the Spa to leave his mark at the nation’s oldest sporting venue. 36 years later, his impact at Saratoga has been monumental, adding to his long list of accomplishments with a 5 1/4-length triumph in Saturday’s 10-furlong Grade 1 Runhappy Travers by Epicenter to earn his first win in America’s oldest race for sophomores.

Asmussen said he celebrated the milestone with his wife and children last night, taking the evening to reflect on the importance of a Travers victory.

“Me and Julie and the boys went and had a nice dinner last night,” Asmussen said. “For me to share it with family is that much more special.”

The Travers win adds to an unparalleled Hall of Fame ledger for Asmussen, whose more than 48,000 starts include several record-setting moments at Saratoga. In 2009, he conditioned Hall of Fame filly Rachel Alexandra to become the first female horse to win the Grade 1 Woodward, just one year after watching fellow Hall of Fame trainee Curlin claim victory in the same event. Last August, an emotional Asmussen watched Stellar Tap cross the finish line 5 1/4 lengths the best in a maiden special weight to provide him with his 9,445th-lifetime win, becoming the all-time leading trainer by wins in North American racing history.

Most recently, the Asmussen-trained Jackie’s Warrior became the first horse in Saratoga history to win a Grade 1 race for three consecutive years when he scored an easy win in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt on July 30.

Asmussen said the Travers, which was his 300th lifetime graded stakes triumph, is among the most gratifying races he has won.

“To realize in your life’s work that you’re able to compete with success at this level, and coming from a racing family, [you’re] always aware of what Saratoga and the Travers are, so to get that done is a tremendous feeling,” Asmussen said.

Epicenter, who was sent to post as the even-money favorite in a competitive field of eight, stalked in fourth under a patient Joel Rosario through the first three-quarters of the 1 1/4-mile test before unleashing a powerful run in the final turn to easily draw away from pacesetter Cyberknife. Epicenter’s final time of 2:00.72 was the fastest Travers since Arrogate’s track record-setting performance in 2016 [1:59.36].

“He’s doing beautifully. He’s very proud of himself,” Asmussen said. “The race went beautifully and it was everything we hoped for. We’re very proud of his win and excited about who he is.”

The Travers was the fourth graded coup of the year for the son of Not This Time, adding to three Grade 2 scores in the Jim Dandy on July 30 at the Spa and the Louisiana Derby and Risen Star at Fair Grounds Race Course this winter. Asmussen expressed frustration in the Triple Crown as Epicenter finished a valiant second in both the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby and Grade 1 Preakness. Both efforts were laced with bad luck, losing the “Run for the Roses” after a wicked pace setup and coming up shy in the Preakness when squeezed at the start and unable to find racing room throughout.

Asmussen said seeing Epicenter finally attain his well-deserved Grade 1 win, especially in the Travers, is satisfying.

“We wanted it for him and for his fans,” said Asmussen. “We got so many congratulations and the respect for him – you enjoy that so much. To win the Travers here at Saratoga with the fans that are here is an extremely proud thing for us.”

Epicenter has always shown ability, graduating at second asking in November at Churchill Downs before impressing in his stakes debut with a 6 1/2-length score in the Gun Runner in December at Fair Grounds. Asmussen said Epicenter continues to improve with every race.

“Incrementally. That’s the best way to describe it,” Asmussen said of his progression. “There’s a lot of talk about how good he is and how much talent he has, and our expectations going into the Classics [were high]. For him to compete hard and still move forward at this stage is an incredible feeling. But he gets all the credit. He’s done all the work and he’s got the ability, constitution and mental makeup to be able to do that.”

Epicenter wins the Travers (Chelsea Durand)

Winning the Travers with any horse is special, but Asmussen said doing so with a horse owned by longtime clients Winchell Thoroughbreds makes it even more meaningful. Winchell Thoroughbreds, operated by Joan Winchell and her son, Ron, teamed up with Asmussen to come close to winning the Travers with subsequent 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner in 2016 [3rd] and with Midnight Bourbon [2nd] last year.

“We talked about it a little last night with Ron and David Fiske, their racing manager, and we’ve been so fortunate, but this is a new level,” said Asmussen. “Ron’s plan and consistency has put us in this position. I always thought it’s so amazing that what a horse does can make you feel that about yourself.”

Now the clear leader of his division, Epicenter will turn his attention to the Grade 1, $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic to face older horses on November 5 at Keeneland. Whether he will race again before the 1 1/4-mile engagement is still to be determined.

“We’ll discuss it,” said Asmussen. “It all depends on how he’s training. We’re very confident to train him up to the Classic with how well he ran sharp in the Jim Dandy when fresh.”

Asmussen added that there has never been a doubt in his mind that Epicenter is the best 3-year-old colt in America.

“He always was for me,” Asmussen said, with a smile.

On Saturday, Asmussen also sent out Jackie’s Warrior and Grade 1-winner Gunite to respective Grade 1 placings in the $600,000 Forego and $500,000 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial.

Reigning Champion Male Sprinter Jackie’s Warrior suffered his first loss at Saratoga after he entered with a perfect 5-for-5 record that included his last-out Vanderbilt victory, the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial last year and the Grade 1 Hopeful in 2020. In the Forego, Jackie’s Warrior went to the lead, but was pressed by Pipeline throughout. Jackie’s Warrior held to his lead to the sixteenth pole, but was caught by Cody’s Wish in the final strides before the wire.

Asmussen gave credit to the talented Cody’s Wish and said the 11-time graded stakes-winning Jackie’s Warrior was simply second-best yesterday.

“He came out of the race in excellent shape. Never defeated, just second-place,” Asmussen said, with a laugh. “He is an unbelievable horse to be around. You have no control over how the other guy runs and Cody’s Wish ran a phenomenal race.”

Jackie’s Warrior is still on target for the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint on November 5 at Keeneland for his final start before retiring to stud at Spendthrift Farm.

As for Gunite, Asmussen expressed his joy in seeing the Winchell Thoroughbreds-owned son of Gun Runner post another good effort in Grade 1 company at Saratoga after dominating the Hopeful last September. Gunite finished a rallying second, 1 1/4 lengths behind the victorious Jack Christopher in yesterday’s seven-furlong Allen Jerkens.

“We’re so proud of him,” said Asmussen. “He’s such a tough horse. I don’t know what’s next, we still have to decide. All of our conversations last night were about Epicenter.”

Two-time Grade 1-winning mare Clairiere was expected to give reigning Champion 3-Year-Old Filly Malathaat another strong battle in their seventh-lifetime meeting in the Grade 1, $600,000 Personal Ensign, but finished last-of-5 behind her familiar rival after trailing far behind the field throughout the nine furlongs and never threatening.

Asmussen said the daughter of Curlin had an obvious excuse for the non-performance after she was unsettled in the starting gate.

“Clairiere had a significant cut on her tongue that we’re going to doctor,” Asmussen said. “We’ll get that healed up and resume training. I don’t imagine [the cut] helped.”

NYRA Press Office

Main photo: Epicenter wins the Travers (Chelsea Durand)

@jonathanstettin @EliteRacingNet Way To Go, outstanding Handicapping!

Bombsaway Bob Grant (@BombsawayBob) View testimonials