Epicenter Ready for 1st Road Game in Preakness

May 19, 2022

Rosario: ‘He Did Everything’ but Win in Derby

Creative Minister Makes His Way into Main Event     

Lukas: Secret Oath Training Better than Before Oaks

 BALTIMORE – With trainer Steve Asmussen’s premier division spending the winter stabled in New Orleans and most of the rest of year in Louisville, favored Epicenter will play his first road game in Saturday’s 147th Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico Race Course.

Starting out at Churchill Downs, then going through Fair Grounds’ four-race series of Derby preps leading into the Kentucky Derby (G1), Epicenter has raced only over the tracks where he’s been stabled. That changes with the 1 3/16-mile Preakness in Baltimore.

Epicenter: https://youtu.be/qcDBZiJtwQk 

“I like how he’s settled in and how he looked over the racetrack,” Asmussen said Thursday morning after the 6-5 morning-line Preakness favorite galloped. “That’s what we were concerned about coming in here, because of the fact that he’d been at Churchill, and he’d been at the Fair Grounds. Basically, he was home when he ran in all his previous races. This will be new as far as running. 

 “But from what we’ve seen from the two days that he’s been on the racetrack and his demeanor in the stall, he’s been consistent. His appetite has been the same. He’s cleaned up. He’s been very relaxed going to the track,” he added. “He’s looked very lively on the racetrack, and he’s cooled out very comfortably. So, I think he’s settled in extremely well. But that is a variable that we were concerned about coming in.”

 Another variable: temperatures expected to climb into the mid to upper 90s Saturday. 

“I’m as concerned as you can be, if you’ve never dealt with it or performed under it being that warm,” Asmussen said. “I mean, it’s just getting to that time of year. But it will also let us know how they will handle it going forward, since it won’t be the last time they’re faced with it.

“… You handle what you have control over and put yourself in the best position possible, and try to eliminate as many variables that could get in the way of that,” he added. “I think the variable we’re not sure of is if it is actually 95, 96 degrees here, and we know it can get pretty sticky here in Baltimore. All of them are going to have to deal with that, but he’s a big horse turning back in 14 days. Make sure he’s drinking plenty of water and he’s hydrated, just like your kids

Off impressive triumphs in the Louisiana Derby (G2) and Risen Star (G2) in New Orleans, Epicenter also was sent off the favorite in the Kentucky Derby. He settled into eighth – the farthest he’s been back in a race – under 2021 Eclipse Award-winning jockey Joel Rosario, before moving between horses on the far turn to get into striking position and taking the lead with a quarter of a mile to go.

Epicenter kept the horse that seemed to be his main competition, Blue Grass (G1) winner Zandon, at bay in the stretch. But just when Epicenter seemed destined to give Asmussen and owner Ron Winchell their first Derby victory, 80-1 shot Rich Strike powered up the rail to win by three-quarters of a length after being last early behind a record pace.

Of all the scenarios Asmussen had played through his mind, he admitted right after the Derby that the Rich Strike outcome was not one.

“I believe it was the longest shot on the board that won the race, so you can’t count anybody out,” he said Thursday. “… With us, we’re concerned about the things we have control over, the condition of our horse and getting another top-level performance out of him. From this year’s results in the Derby, you won’t take anybody for granted, and you’ll try to cover your bases as far as being prepared for everything.”

Asmussen acknowledged being disappointed that Rich Strike was kept out of the Preakness to await the Belmont Stakes.

“I wanted another shot at it, maybe just me being ignorant. But you’re here to compete,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll meet up again down the road, hopefully.” 

Epicenter was scheduled to school in the paddock during Thursday’s fifth race at Pimlico. He will school at the starting gate Friday morning, Asmussen said.

Rosario: ‘He Did Everything Well’ but Win in Derby

Jockey Joel Rosario will seek his first victory in the Preakness Stakes (G1) Saturday with 6-5 favorite Epicenter, the Kentucky Derby (G1) runner-up. Rosario has ridden in the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown at Pimlico Race Course seven times, with a trio of seconds on relative long shots. He finished fourth in 2013 aboard his Kentucky Derby winner Orb.

In a phone conversation with Preakness media, the reigning Eclipse Award-winning rider was asked mainly about the 2022 Derby, when Epicenter looked like the winner in deep stretch, only to be passed in the final strides by 80-1 shot Rich Strike. For Rosario, everything went right in the race except the outcome.

“We had a great trip,” Rosario said. “How the race set up, we kind of had to move a little early. But he did really well. Turning for home it looked like we were going to win the race until that horse came in the last 50 yards and just blew by us. But he ran a great race. He did everything I asked him to do. It was a very good race for him.

“… We expect a big race and see what he does,” he added. “He’s a very good horse.”

Rosario acknowledged it flashed through his mind that he was going to win his second Kentucky Derby.

“It went through my mind. He looked really good,” he said. “Turning for home, he went on and took off. Yeah, I was very, very excited at that point. But what can I say? The horse ran really well. It would have been really great if we could have won it, but it doesn’t work out sometimes.”

 He said he didn’t see Rich Strike – who was four lengths back at the eighth-pole – moving on the inside until about the sixteenth pole. 

“It looked like everybody stayed off the rail that day,” Rosario said. “And my horse was running fast enough at that point that I never thought somebody was coming inside like he did.”

Epicenter continued to establish his versatility in the Derby, settling into eighth and on the inside from his No. 3 post in the early stages.

“He did everything well,” Rosario said. “He responded to everything I did. It seems like it doesn’t matter to him [where he is].”

Rosario said he likes breaking from post #8 in the Preakness’ field of nine, as well as being outside of Early Voting, a likely candidate for setting the pace from Post #5. Santa Anita allowance winner Armagnac also figures to be right near the lead, having gone wire to wire in his two victories. Conventional wisdom suggests being outside the other speed gives Rosario a tactical advantage, especially with a horse that in his past two races has shown he is content to rate behind rivals.

“It’s the sort of thing where we’ll see what the speed has to say,” Rosario said. “And we’ll play off of that. I’m going to ride him with a lot of confidence, and if we’re the best, we’ll win.”

Creative Minister Makes His Way into Main Event       

Creative Minister has never been in a marquee race, but he’s also never run on anything but big-race programs.

The 3-year-old colt’s big-day experience continues Saturday, but this time Creative Minister will make his stakes debut in the headliner event: the 147th Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico Race Course.

Heretofore, Creative Minister has been in two maiden and one allowance race, all on the undercard of major stakes for 3-year-olds. He rallied to finish second by a neck in his debut at seven furlongs on the March 5 Fountain of Youth (G2) undercard at Gulfstream Park; he graduated by 1 ½ lengths in a 1 1/16-mile maiden race on Keeneland’s Blue Grass (G1) program April 9; and captured a 1 1/16-mile optional claiming allowance by 2 ¾ lengths on the May 7 Kentucky Derby (G1) card at Churchill Downs.  

“When he ran in his maiden race at Gulfstream, it was the wrong distance,” McPeek said Thursday morning after Creative Minister galloped. “We really were trying to get a mile and a sixteenth into him, but the race didn’t fill. But his seven-eighths race was impressive. I was actually happy that he ran second. I knew that I could come back on opening week at Keeneland, and there’d be a good spot for him there going two turns.

“He’s jumped through those two hoops pretty easily, in my opinion. He’s trained well, and he’s a good-doing (eating) horse and sturdy,” he added. “Certainly, on the physical, you can look at him and say, ‘This is a really nice horse.’ … These things are wide open, and you get one opportunity.”

Creative Minister also has raced in only large fields. In fact, the Preakness field of nine horses is the smallest he’s encountered. 

“I’ve brought a list of horses here over my career,” McPeek said, “and watching him today, I’m as confident as I’ve ever been going into a race. You’ve got to be eternally optimistic as a horse trainer and an owner, and this colt is doing super.

“… His last race, he tucked inside. He took all the dirt and then he kicked out and kicked on. He’s going to have to do that this weekend,” he added. “I like the fact that he drew inside [Post #2]. I think [jockey] Brian [Hernandez] is really good at the inside trip. I think if he can save some ground and find the right running spot, he’s got a chance.”

Creative Minister – owned by Paul Fireman’s Fern Circle Stables, Greg Back’s Back Racing LLC and McPeek – was supplemented into the Preakness for $150,000 because he wasn’t nominated to the Triple Crown by either the Jan. 29 deadline ($600) or the March 28 cutoff ($6,000). Of course, he never ran in a race until early March, and McPeek was thinking more about summer races such as Saratoga’s Travers Stakes (G1).

“It looked like he wasn’t going to get ready,” McPeek said. “But he has worked against all my best horses, and he’s held his own against all my best horses. He just was a horse that needed to learn the routine.

“As we saw a couple of weeks ago, these races are really weird,” he added, referencing one-time claimer Rich Strike’s Derby victory at 80-1 odds. “If a horse is doing well coming into it, then you can’t be scared to pull the trigger.”

McPeek finished eighth in the Kentucky Derby with Smile Happy and ninth with Tiz the Bomb, who are bypassing the Preakness. The trainer said before the Derby that Epicenter was the horse that worried him the most, and he hasn’t changed that opinion.

“Well, you have to hope that he regresses a little bit,” McPeek said. “He’s been running all winter. Lovely horse, he’s definitely the horse to beat. I think there are three or four or five in there. Early Voting, you don’t know how the pace sets up. Simplification ran a very respectable race (fourth) in the Derby. And, of course, the filly [Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner Secret Oath].”

As far as beating Epicenter, he said, “Yeah, we probably need him to regress a little bit and we need to move up a little bit.”

McPeek said he has no concern about projected temperatures reaching the mid-90s on Saturday.

Early Voting Feeling Feisty at Pimlico

By the way he moved and acted Thursday, Early Voting showed assistant trainer Baldo Hernandez that he has settled in nicely at Pimlico Race Course for the 147th running of the Preakness Stakes (G1) Saturday.   

Early Voting: https://youtu.be/r4Rco38dOrM 

Klaravich Stables’ son of the top young sire Gun Runner shipped in from trainer Chad Brown’s barn at Belmont Park on Tuesday. He went out to the track Thursday around 8:30 a.m. following the renovation break, and Hernandez reported that everything was fine in Early Voting’s world.

“It was a normal gallop, a mile and a quarter,” Hernandez said. “It was nice, smooth like we always do. He handled the track really well. He likes it.”

Early Voting served up a bit of feel-good, feisty behavior after he had gotten in his exercise under Marino Garcia.

“Coming home here he reared up,” Hernandez said, smiling. “I think that’s pretty good. He’s always like that. He’s the same.”

Early Voting drew Post #5 in the field of nine 3-year-olds that will go to the post for the Preakness. Jose Ortiz, who has ridden the colt in his three career starts, has the mount.

Lukas: Secret Oath Training Better than Before Oaks

Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas said Thursday morning that he likes the way his filly Secret Oath, the May 6 Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner, is approaching the 147th Preakness Stakes (G1) Saturday at Pimlico Race Course. Lukas is seeking his record-tying seventh win in the Preakness and 15th success in the Triple Crown series.

Lukas said Secret Oath was just stretching her legs when she went to the track to jog and gallop Thursday.

“The big secret of probably trying to win this thing is to read the horse, see what you’ve got in front of you, see what they need and don’t need,” he said. “With the turnaround of two weeks, the big thing is fluid levels, electrolytes, stuff like that is more important than how far we gallop. It doesn’t make a lot of difference. You’re just trying to get her filled up. Being a filly, she’s real rangy and slight-built anyhow. She isn’t tucked up. I feel pretty good about her.

“I actually think that she is training better these two weeks than she did the two weeks before the Oaks,” he added. “Even with the trip here, it seems like she is taking a hold of it. That might be maturity and getting into the groove of what we really want to do.”

Armagnac ‘Healthy and Happy’ for Preakness  

The first two days on the Pimlico Race Course grounds have been uneventful for trainer Tim Yakteen and his Preakness Stakes (G1) runner Armagnac – and that is just fine with the 57-year-old Yakteen, who is making his first appearance in the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown.

Armagnac had his second look at the Pimlico Race Course track Thursday morning, galloping between 1 ¼ miles and 1 3/8 miles, according to Yakteen.

“I think he has taken to the track very nicely and he has settled in great,” Yakteen said. “As a trainer, when you get to right before a race, you basically don’t want any surprises. When everything is going smooth, you just want to keep it that way. You want to keep them healthy and happy, and that is what we are doing.”

Armagnac, owned by SF Racing and partners, was on the track at 8:30 Thursday morning. Yakteen also schooled the colt at the starting gate as part of his pre-Preakness preparations.

On Friday, Yakteen said Armagnac will be on the track around 6:30 a.m. Training hours are between 5 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. because first post for Friday’s 14-race card is 11:30 a.m.

Armagnac has won two of five career starts and is in the Preakness field after impressing in an allowance race at Santa Anita on May 8. He posted at 4 ¼-length win in a front-running score at 1 1/16 miles. Irad Ortiz Jr. will be riding the son of Quality Road for the first time.

Sano Thankful for Return to Preakness with Simplification 

Tami Bobo and Tristan De Meric’s Simplification galloped 1 ½ miles at Pimlico Race Course Thursday morning for Saturday’s 147th Preakness Stakes (G1), in which the son of Not This Time will provide trainer Antonio Sano with his second Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown starter in five years.

Simplification: https://youtu.be/lHT8xcMh2aM 

Sano, who has been training in the U.S. for a little more than a decade after emigrating from Venezuela, saddled Gunnevera for a fifth-place finish in the 2017 Preakness Stakes.

“I’m so happy to be at the Preakness again, to have two horses in the race in five years,” the South Florida-based trainer said. “I’m so proud.”

Gunnevera went on to finish his career with $5.5 million in earnings.

Simplification, like Gunnevera, finished second in the Holy Bull (G2), won the Fountain of Youth (G2) and finished third in the Florida Derby (G1). The Florida-bred colt bettered Gunnevera’s seventh-place Kentucky Derby (G1) effort while rallying from 15th to fourth during a very wide journey at Churchill Downs. He is rated fourth in the morning line for the Preakness at 6-1.

Skippylongstocking Name Stems from Childhood Memory

If you thought that Preakness Stakes (G1) runner Skippylongstocking got his name as a play off the fictional main character Pippi Longstocking from the series of children’s books, you would be wrong.

Trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. set the record straight on how the son of 2016 Preakness winner Exaggerator got his name as he stood outside the Preakness Stakes Barn at Pimlico Race Course Thursday morning. First, though, he had to call owner Daniel Alonso to get the story because he said he didn’t know.

After a short call, he had the scoop.

“After speaking to the owner, he said he and his childhood friend, when they were young kids, just called each other ‘Skippy,” Joseph said. “One day, someone just said, “Skippylongstocking!” And it just stuck around. That is 25, 30 years ago now. He just decided to name a horse Skippylongstocking. A very simple reason.”

Skippylongstocking was last seen finishing third in the Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct Race Track in New York on April 9. He has a career record of two wins, one second and two thirds in nine career starts.

The colt is rated at 20-1 in the Preakness morning line and will start from Post #9 in the nine-horse field.

Skippylongstocking: https://youtu.be/p7deXygBn0g 

The Kentucky-bred colt will be the second Preakness starter for Joseph, who finished ninth in 2020 with Ny Traffic. The 35-year-old native of Barbados is coming off his first training title at the Championship Meet at Gulfstream Park.

“It’s destiny,” he said with a laugh when asked why he will win the Preakness. “That’s what I hope. He is training well coming into the race. He has had a good week. He is a horse that is improving. He needs to find more, obviously. It’s a competitive race. Epicenter is a deserving favorite, the filly [Secret Oath] from [D. Wayne] Lukas is a good filly. Early Voting … Simplification … there are quality horses in the race.”

Skippylongstocking galloped over the Pimlico track Thursday morning. His trainer knows this is a step up, but sees talent in his horse, who has the most starts of any starter in the race.

“We just hope to be the best on the day,” he said.

Happy Jack “Enjoys ‘Nice and Easy’ Morning

Calumet Farm’s Happy Jack got his first look at the Pimlico Race Course surface Thursday when Sabas Rivera, a barn foreman for trainer Doug O’Neill, sent him to the track just after 6:30 a.m.

Happy Jack: https://youtu.be/NEzTeexx20E 

With exercise rider Antonio Romero on his back, Happy Jack jogged a half mile and galloped another half.

Happy Jack, who is 30-1 on the morning line, will start from Post # 6 in Saturday’s 147th running of the Preakness Stakes (G1).

“Nice and easy,” Rivera said.

“He felt great out there,” Romero said. “I thought he handled the track really good.”

Happy Jack is coming off a 14th place finish in the Kentucky Derby (G1) on May 7. The son of 2013 Preakness winner Oxbow has run in graded-stakes races in his last four starts since breaking his maiden in his first career start on Jan. 22.

He was fifth in the Robert B Lewis (G3) Feb. 6, third in the San Felipe (G2) March 5 and third in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) April 9, all at Santa Anita. Then came the Kentucky Derby.

Happy Jack vanned to Pimlico Tuesday night from Churchill Downs, arriving early Wednesday morning.

He is the only Preakness horse not being stabled at the Pimlico Stakes Barn. He is a few barns away in Barn D, the same place where O’Neill housed his other Preakness runners, including Kentucky Derby winners I’ll Have Another in 2012 and Nyquist in 2016. I’ll Have Another prevailed in the Preakness by a neck.

Rivera said Happy Jack is scheduled to go out to the track Friday morning at about the same time but said O’Neill will make the final decision after he gets to the barn for the first time.  

Fenwick Looking to ‘Strike’ it Rich in Preakness

As the trainer of Fenwick, who is rated at 50-1 in the morning line for Saturday’s Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico Race Course, Kevin McKathan was ready for the question: What do you think about the possibility of the son of Curlin winning the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown following Rich Strike’s 80-1 upset victory in the Kentucky Derby (G1)?

Fenwick: https://youtu.be/gsLibeHiFEs

Rich Strike, who is not running in the Preakness, scored at the second-highest odds in Derby history on May 7 and paid $163.60. The Preakness record for highest payoff was delivered in 1975 by Master Derby, who went off at 23-1 and paid $48.80.

“It would be great,” McKathan said. “I think he’ll probably go off at 80-1, actually. It would be awesome. This is one of those deals where you can stop and take a breath and say, ‘You know what? We can do this. It can happen.’ Everyone is like, ‘This is a sport for the rich and famous,’ but let me just tell you that, if you end up with a good horse, you can beat them all. You can beat them all. That horse has no idea what he cost, no idea what kind of plane they flew in here on. If you lead the best one over there and you get the right trip, anyone can get lucky. It’s one of those things.”

Fenwick, who has one win in six career starts, finished last of 11 in his most recent start, the April 9 Blue Grass (G1) at Keeneland. His connections said that the son of 2007 Preakness winner and two-time Horse of the Year Curlin had traffic leaving the gate, ending his chances.

McKathan said his colt, co-owned by Villa Rosa Farm and Harlo Stable, will be dangerous if  he can use his speed to get to the lead. He drew Post #3 and will be ridden by Florent Geroux. 

“They asked about the post-position draw and I’m just happy to be between the fences,” McKathan said. “Give me a shot. With a little luck and God’s help, I think he will run big.”

Exercise rider Kelton Brown took Fenwick out to the track at Pimlico Thursday morning for his first tour of historic grounds.

“I backed him up about a half a mile and let him gallop around really slow and take everything in,” Brown said. “It’s a lot with all the cameras and everything. He handled everything like a champ.”

Maryland Jockey Club Press Release

Photo: Epicenter, (MJC)

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