Friday, May 20, 2022
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 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, Epicenter has raced only over the tracks where he’s been stabled. That changes with the 1 3/16-mile Preakness in Baltimore.
“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.”
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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 and Risen Star 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 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 “… 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.
Jockey Joel Rosario will seek his first victory in the Preakness with 6-5 favorite Epicenter. 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’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.”