Epicenter proves the best three-year old with a dominant Travers Stakes win
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Epicenter, who came up just shy of Grade 1 glory twice this spring in the Triple Crown, secured both his first top-level victory and a place at the top of the sophomore division with an emphatic 5 1/4-length victory under Joel Rosario in the 153rd renewal of the 10-furlong Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers on Saturday at Saratoga Race Course.
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen was rewarded for his patience throughout the year with Epicenter after watching the son of Not This Time finish a frustrating second in both the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby and Grade 1 Preakness. Epicenter bounced back from his troubled Preakness finish with a triumphant return victory by 1 1/2 lengths in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy on July 30 at the Spa.
“It was really gratifying,” Asmussen said. “We walked over today with a tremendous amount of confidence in the horse, but definitely remember we felt exactly that way walking over for this year’s Derby. He was away cleanly and thought he was very comfortable and attending close enough to the pace, and just ran a very dominating performance against a very good group.”
Asmussen, who finished on the board with Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Gun Runner [3rd, 2016] and Midnight Bourbon [2nd, 2021], earned his first victory in the historic test for sophomores.
“It’s really exciting at Saratoga, coming from a racing family,” said Asmussen. “What Saratoga means to American racing, what the Travers means to Saratoga – I want to help paint the canoe. Saratoga is about tradition. Racing is about tradition. To have your name on that cup is very special.”
Ron Winchell, owner of Winchell Thoroughbreds, said finding the winner’s circle with Epicenter after near misses was rewarding.
“As long as I can remember, the history of Saratoga and the horses my family has run over the years, the Travers is always the marquee race,” said Winchell. “Coming here with Gun Runner and running third and Midnight Bourbon running second last year, it just makes you want to win it that much more. It makes this win in this race that much more special for myself and my family.”
The Runhappy Travers was the 12th graded stakes victory of the meet for Rosario, setting a record for the most graded stakes wins by a rider in a single meeting at Saratoga.
“It’s amazing,” said Rosario. “I have a great agent. Ron Anderson is amazing and I have to thank him and everyone for all the opportunities they’ve given me.”
The even-money favorite in the field of eight accomplished colts, Epicenter emerged from post 6 and sat comfortably in third as dual Grade 1-winner Cyberknife was urged up the rail from the inside post by Florent Geroux to establish command with Ain’t Life Grand tracking just to his outside from post 3. Cyberknife bounded clear down the stretch for the first time through an opening quarter-mile in 23.32 seconds over the fast main track.
Entering the backstretch, Cyberknife remained at the front through a half-mile in 47.63 as Grade 1 Preakness winner Early Voting inched up to the outside of Epicenter to be on even terms for third. Ain’t Life Grand made a brief move at Cyberknife approaching the final turn, but was overtaken by Artorius as he came under a ride from Irad Ortiz, Jr. on the outside.
Meanwhile, Epicenter advanced with purpose two paths from the rail and easily arrived on the outside of Cyberknife to take the lead at the top of the lane. Cyberknife battled on at the rail with Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike and Grade 1 Blue Grass winner Zandon charging down the center of the course, but there was no catching a dominant Epicenter, who built on his advantage with every stride and completed the 1 1/4 miles in 2:00.72.
It was a close photo for second as the hard-trying Cyberknife held on to place honors by a nose over Zandon, who bested Rich Strike by a neck for show honors. Gilded Age, Artorius, Ain’t Life Grand and Early Voting completed the order of finish.
Asmussen said Rosario handled the race perfectly after uncertainty about how the pace would shape up.
“Beforehand, there was a lot of concern about who was going to be on the lead,” said Asmussen. “Early Voting appeared to have the most pace, but they definitely did not want to be on the lead this time. Off of that there was a concern how much pace there would be, but Joel handled Epicenter. He was away clean and in the rhythm he wants to be in and I thought he finished up the mile and a quarter very strong.”
Asmussen said Epicenter’s dramatic resume of close losses and easy victories demonstrates the drama that keeps horse racing exciting.
“I think that’s what makes racing so great. You’re bet on by what you’ve done, but what you’ve done previously doesn’t get it done for you,” said Asmussen. “For Epicenter to have competed in the Derby and the Preakness and still have this much horse now, we’re extremely proud of that. That’s what makes racing great.”
Rosario, who has been aboard for eight of Epicenter’s 10 starts, said Epicenter’s early position was just what he had hoped for.
“We wanted to be forwardly placed, and he was. He broke good and he was more in the race today,” said Rosario, who had piloted Epicenter to victory from last of 4 in the Jim Dandy. “For a second I thought I could just keep going forward to the lead but it looked like those couple horses wanted to be more forwardly placed, so I just wanted to give him a good trip.
“It was a good trip,” Rosario added. “I was just following those two horses on the lead. I was inside there and I just wanted to take my time with where he was. He looked like he was a little more in the game today. He did great.”
Epicenter first flashed his brilliance with a 6 1/2-length win in the Gun Runner as a juvenile in December at Fair Grounds Race Course, his first outing facing winners after graduating at second asking going one-mile in November at Churchill Downs. The bay colt carried his good form into his sophomore campaign with a narrow defeat to start the season in the Grade 3 Lecomte in January at Fair Grounds before a pair of subsequent Grade 2 victories in the Risen Star and Louisiana Derby, both at the New Orleans oval.
Epicenter’s strong form at Fair Grounds this spring earned him a spot in the starting gate in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby and lukewarm favoritism in the field of 20. He tracked in eighth behind a blazing pace set by Summer Is Tomorrow and looked to be the winner as he closed well into the stretch, but was collared in the final strides by 80-1 upset winner Rich Strike.
The Preakness held more bad luck for Epicenter, who was squeezed and steadied at the start and was trapped in along the rail before finally hitting his best stride late in the stretch and finishing second to Early Voting. With his Runhappy Travers victory, Epicenter has now soundly beaten both horses who bested him in the first two legs of the Triple Crown in May.
As for what’s next for Epicenter, Asmussen said the Grade 1, $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on November 5 at Keeneland is the logical goal, with a potential start between now and then still to be determined.
“As good as he ran in the Jim Dandy off the freshening, we’re very confident to do either,” Asmussen said. “When you think of the horses that are running and how excellent they are, what a great Breeders’ Cup Classic it will be if we can get them all lined up.”
Bred in Kentucky by Westwind Farms, Epicenter, a $260,000 purchase at the 2020 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, returned $4 for a $2 win wager and became the third Grade 1 winner for his young sire, who stands at Taylor Made Farm in Kentucky. Epicenter earned $670,000 in victory and improved his lifetime record to 10-6-3-0 with a bankroll of $2,940,639.
Brad Cox, trainer of Cyberknife, said while it was not a specific plan to go to the lead, he and Geroux were happy to let the son of Gun Runner take charge if uncontested.
“I can’t predict what anyone else is going to do but I know we’re not going to take away anything that comes easy and we were doing it easy enough,” said Cox. “We were the second-best horse today. At a mile-and-a-quarter, I thought the horse really battled and battled for second, held and I’m very, very proud of our horse.
Cyberknife, the 9-2 post-time second choice, arrived at the Travers from a second Grade 1 victory in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. Cox said he was pleased with the strong showing from his colt.
“I thought he trained well leading up and he ran a big race,” said Cox. “When I saw three-quarters in eleven I thought, ‘Wow, we’re in a good spot here.’ Obviously, once I saw Joel ranging up, as easy as he was, I thought this was going to be [difficult]. Once they straightened up, I thought, ‘We got a shot here,’ but you could tell he was getting away from us a little bit. He’s a very good horse. Hats off to the winners, they deserve it. We were second best and I’m very proud of our horse.”
Flavien Prat, jockey aboard third-place finisher Zandon, said the son of Upstart lacked the last good kick he needed to get past Cyberknife for place honors.
“He made a good run there at the end and I thought he was going to be second, and he just couldn’t get by the other horse,” said Prat. “I thought he ran good.”
Jockey Sonny Leon noted that Rich Strike, who closed from six lengths off the pace to be a hard-trying fourth, has grown mentally since his last-out sixth-place finish in the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets on June 11.
“He was doing really well. He just got a little tired in the last 50 yards,” said Leon, who rode just his second career race at the Spa. “He did a good job coming back after the layoff. He’s doing better every single time. I think, mentally, he’s growing up.
“It was a different track today,” Leon added. “I knew they weren’t going to go as fast as they were in the Kentucky Derby, 21 and 45, that wasn’t going to happen. But I’m very proud of how Rich Strike ran today.”
Live racing resumes Sunday at Saratoga with a 10-race card featuring the $135,000 Better Talk Now in Race 8 and the Grade 1, $500,000 Ballerina Handicap, offering a “Win and You’re In” berth to the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, in Race 9. First post is 1:05 p.m. Eastern.
Saratoga Live will present daily coverage and analysis of the summer meet at Saratoga Race Course on the networks of FOX Sports. For the complete broadcast schedule, visit https://www.nyra.com/saratoga/racing/tv-schedule.
NYRA Bets is the official wagering platform of Saratoga Race Course, and the best way to bet every race of the summer meet. Available to horse players nationwide, the NYRA Bets app is available for download today on iOS and Android at www.NYRABets.com.
By Mary Eddy/NYRA Press Office
Main photo: Epicenter romps in the Grade 1 RUNHAPPY Travers (NYRA/Coglianese)