SARATOGA SPRINGS, NY – Two standouts. Two high-profile graded stakes. Two different scenarios Saturday for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.
In the Grade I portion of his afternoon at Saratoga Race Course, Asmussen will saddle champion Jackie's Warrior (Maclean's Music), who just might go off as the shortest-priced favorite in the history of the $350,000 GI Alfred G. Vanderbilt H., which has been run since 1985.
One race later, in the $600,000 GII Jim Dandy S., Asmussen will send out Epicenter (Not This Time), runner-up as the favorite in the GI Kentucky Derby and GI Preakness S. The Jim Dandy is the local stepping stone to the meet's signature race, the GI Runhappy Travers S. Aug. 27. It is entirely possible that he will be the favorite in a field that includes Preakness winner Early Voting (Gun Runner) and GI Toyota Blue Grass S. winner Zandon (Upstart), both trained by Chad Brown.
Epicenter did not make his 2-year-old debut until September at Churchill Downs, a few weeks after the end of the 2021 Saratoga season. He broke his maiden second time out in November and has never been worse than second in his six races since. With victories in the GII Risen Star and GII Louisiana Derby on his resume, he went off as the 4-1 favorite in the Kentucky Derby. The Winchell Thoroughbreds colt looked like a winner in the stretch after a duel with Zandon when long shot Rich Strike (Keen Ice) rolled on by to score a huge upset.
Asmussen took him to the Preakness, but he encountered some trouble early, was far back and ended up 1 1/4 lengths behind Early Voting.
“Two hard races 14 days apart. He got a little freshening since then,” Asmussen said. “We love what we've seen since we've been here at Saratoga, but it is his first run at Saratoga ever. It will be his first try up here against a very accomplished field, but with the eye on the prize, that is the Travers this summer.”
Epicenter has breezed three times at Saratoga on the Oklahoma training track and Asmussen chose the Jim Dandy over the GI Haskell Invitational S. last weekend in order to give his colt a race over the main track.
Asmussen said that Epicenter is a popular runner, whose best performances may be ahead of him.
“Epicenter has a tremendously large rooting section, from people that I come in contact with, and in passing even, Epicenter has a large fan group,” he said. “What I am hoping, and on the way to proving, is that he's the next Gun Runner. And it feels very similar, because he does have a groundswell of support as a 3-year-old, even though he has not been victorious in the major races yet.”
Gun Runner had a very solid though not spectacular 3-year-old season, but became a superstar with $15,998,500 in earnings by winning seven of his last eight starts. That run started with the GI Clark H. in late November 2017 and ended with a win in his finale, the 2019 GI Pegasus World Cup.
- Reporting by Mike Kane, Photo by Sarah Andrew