There can no longer be any debate about the leader of the 3-year-old band. It is Epicenter.
The Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up finally secured the Grade 1 triumph that had been exasperatingly elusive, dominating the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes by 5 1/4 lengths on Saturday at Saratoga Race.
“I thought that answered a lot of questions,” Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen said of Epicenter’s must-have Travers triumph on behalf of Winchell Thoroughbreds. “His resume looks very good and we’re willing to run against them again.”
Asmussen, the winningest trainer in North American history, had misfired with his first seven Travers starters.
Asmussen thought Epicenter was going to provide him with his elusive Derby triumph only to have that snatched away by 80-1 Rich Strike, who edged him by a mere three-quarters of a length in pulling one of the great upsets in the history of the Run for the Roses. The bay son of Not This Time staged a bold rally in the Preakness, but missed overtaking speedy Early Voting by 1 1/4 lengths.
This time, Zandon finished third just as he had in the Derby. Rich Strike atoned for a bad Belmont by rallying to be fourth, missing third by a neck in his first start since the final leg of the Triple Crown.
“He did a good job coming back after the layoff,” said jockey Sonny Leon. ”I think mentally he’s growing up.”
Gilded Age, Artorious, Ain’t Life Grand and Early Voting rounded out the eight-horse field.
Epicenter made this one look easy, just as he did in his previous start. In the Jim Dandy (G2) here, he made a five-wide bid to score a 1 1/2-length victory against Zandon under light urging from Joel Rosario. In the Travers, he patiently tracked keen Cyberknife in fourth through an opening quarter in 23.32 seconds and a solid opening half in 47.63 seconds. He was still fourth as Cyberknife clocked three-quarters in 1:11.43.
Brad Cox, who trains Haskell winner Cyberknife, was filled with hope.
“When I saw three-quarters in 1:11, I thought, ‘Wow, we’re in a really good spot here.’”
Then he saw Epicenter and Rosario range up with an explosive move. Then he knew the battle was on for second. Cyberknife did well to fend off Zandon by a nose.
Epicenter completed 1 1/4 mile in 2:00.72 as the even-money favorite.
Asmussen acknowledged that he experienced some anxious moments before the start of the Travers. The sun-splashed afternoon had not been good to him. Four-year-old Jackie’s Warrior, a prohibitive favorite in the Grade 1 Forego, was stunned by Cody’s Wish for his first defeat in five starts this season. The reigning sprint champion had never lost in five previous starts at this iconic track.
Then he watched top choice Clairiere become fractious in the gate and run last of five in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign. Then, too, he was nagged by thoughts of the Derby that so maddeningly got away.
“We walked over today with a tremendous amount of confidence, but definitely remembering we felt the exact same way walking over for this year’s Derby,” Asmussen said.
As for the earlier unexpected setbacks, he said, “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.”
The Travers compensated for all of that frustration. “For Epicenter to have competed in the Derby, in the Preakness, and to have this much horse now, we’re extremely proud of that,” the trainer said.
Asmussen had achieved his best Travers result only last year, when Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Midnight Bourbon took second. This was a major race he wanted badly, especially for Ron Winchell, a client with whom he has had so much other success. Now, the canoe will be painted in Winchell’s maroon and white colors.
“It’s extremely exciting. Coming from a racing family, what Saratoga means to American racing, what the Travers means to Saratoga, I just want to be the one to help them paint the canoe,” said Asmussen.