Punches his Travers ticket with ground-saving victory
SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. – Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Epicenter arrived at the Grade 2, $600,000 Jim Dandy at Saratoga Race Course with vengeance following a frustrating run on the Triple Crown trail, finishing a close second as the favorite in both the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby and Grade 1 Preakness. But on Saturday, he started the second half of the year off right, saving ground down the backstretch and making a wide sweeping move to capture the nine-furlong test by 1 1/2 lengths under Joel Rosario.
Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen said the impressive score will springboard the son of leading third-crop stallion Not This Time to the 10-furlong Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers on August 27 at Saratoga. A total of 14 horses have swept the Jim Dandy-Travers double, including last year’s winner Essential Quality.
“It’s extremely rewarding off two tough races to bring him back in the winner’s circle where we think he belongs,” Asmussen said. “[In] a four-horse field, it’s always a lot of mobility. I was very happy with the solid, steady pace – I think that 48 and one, 12 for every eighth of a mile is what we’re targeting. What I loved about it is the fact that [there is] another eighth in the Travers. It was his first race ever over Saratoga and we know what’s on the menu next. We want to be as ready as we possibly can for it.”
Epicenter was second beaten three-quarters of a length in the Kentucky Derby, won by inside rallying 80-1 longshot Rich Strike, two weeks before making a late-closing inside rally in the Preakness but coming up 1 1/4 lengths short of victory to Jim Dandy rival Early Voting.
Epicenter secured a third graded stakes victory after capturing Fair Grounds Race Course’s Grade 2 Risen Star and Grade 2 Louisiana Derby en route to the Triple Crown.
The handily-ridden win came on the heels of another graded stakes victory for Rosario and Asmussen, who teamed up one race earlier to score a history-making triumph in the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap with Jackie’s Warrior, who has now won a Grade 1 at the Spa for three straight years.
Epicenter broke from the inside post in the four-horse field and trailed as Early Voting set the tempo into the first turn through an opening quarter-mile in 24.22 seconds with Zandon, third in the Kentucky Derby, just 1 1/2 lengths back in second and Tawny Port skimming the rail in third.
Positions remained unchanged through a half-mile in 48.28 seconds, but Tawny Port inched his way closer to even terms with Zandon while Epicenter continued to save ground a close fourth and last. As the field rounded the far turn through three-quarters in 1:12.26, Jose Ortiz began asking Early Voting for more as Zandon launched his bid under Flavien Prat. Epicenter, still in last, fanned four-wide under no urging from Rosario.
All four runners appeared to have a fighting chance nearing the three-sixteenths pole, but Epicenter’s late kick proved superior, gaining command outside the furlong marker and was in-hand while clocking a final time of 1:48.99.
Zandon finished a hard fought second, a half-length in front of Tawny Port. It was another 1 3/4 lengths back to Early Voting. Western River was scratched.
Bred in Kentucky by Westwind Farms, Epicenter was purchased for $260,000 at the Keeneland September Yearling Sale. He returned $4.20 for a $2 win wager as the odds-on favorite, earning a fifth lifetime victory through a record of 9-5-3-0, while banking $330,000 in victory. His career earnings surpassed the $2 million mark and now stand at $2,270,639.
Rosario, aboard for all five of Epicenter’s victories, said he can feel the horse beginning to blossom.
“Seeing the race he put in today, [sitting] behind and waiting for the right time to go on and he did,” said Rosario, who piloted Good Samaritan to victory in the 2017 Jim Dandy. “We broke and got to the rail, probably not exactly what he wanted but the race played that way and got inside there for a little while. He ran his race but sometimes [it takes] a lot to go that way. He looked relaxed and did everything when I asked, so we look forward for that [the Travers].”
Asmussen, who captured his third Jim Dandy victory, said he felt anxious seeing Epicenter in last down the backstretch.
“Once he eased him out of that spot, Epicenter was carrying Joel very comfortably the whole way down the backside,” Asmussen said. “I was a little concerned how far back he was, but they threw up the middle fraction, they stayed at 12 [for the next eighth of a mile] and didn’t back it up in his face. He had a shot from there. When he eased him out at the head of the lane, he was travelling really pretty.
“The fact that this is his first run over Saratoga [is good],” Asmussen added. “I didn’t expect it to offer him any problems whatsoever, but it’s a great relief for him to run his race over this track.”
Chad Brown, trainer of Zandon and Early Voting, said he expected a more forward trip for Epicenter.
“We sort of inherited the lead and that’s fine,” Brown said. “On paper, most tracks you’d say 12 and change is not too bad, but this track has been pretty tiring. Clearly, Early Voting just didn’t handle this track. We’ll see how he comes back.”
In finishing second, Zandon maintained a perfect in-the-money record, which now stands at 6-2-2-2.
Brown said Zandon, who closed from last-of-11 to win the Grade 1 Blue Grass in April at Keeneland, would benefit from a rallying trip.
“As far as Zandon goes, he was a little closer than he probably wants to run,” Brown said. “I don’t think Flavien had any other option. I thought he rode the horse fine. Hopefully, in a bigger field, I can get the horse back. He did a little better running in the Blue Grass with a different strategy. Hats off to the winner – he didn’t break that well and he still circled the field and won nicely. He was the best horse today.”
Prat said he expected to have more pace to chase.
“I didn’t have that type of race in my mind. I thought there would be a bit more battle between Early Voting and Epicenter,” Prat said. “Unfortunately, it looked like Epicenter didn’t jump well so I broke well and got myself there. It’s probably not where he wants to be, but it was the natural thing.”
Live racing resumes Sunday at Saratoga with a 10-race card highlighted by the Grade 2, $250,000 Bowling Green in Race 8 and the Grade 2, $200,000 Amsterdam 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.
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By Ryan Martin
Photo by Janet Garaguso