BALTIMORE — They had a working merry-go-round in the Pimlico infield fest on Saturday, while real horses on the track ran around them from 10:30 a.m. until almost 8 p.m.
None of those merry-go-round horses caught each other.
Jockey Joel Rosario probably knows the feeling.
He was on the heavy favorite, Epicenter, for the 147th Preakness, and went all the way around there trailing the Chad Brown-trained Early Voting, never to catch him, having broken a half-step slow and getting crowded from the outside, effectively killing Epicenter’s chance to win before the race was barely a dozen strides in.
Rosario and Epicenter salvaged second place, but in a way that burned, on a 90-plus degree day, in stark contrast to their second in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago.
Epicenter ran his eyeballs out at Churchill Downs, but was caught by 80-1 Rich Strike when the race only had a few strides left to it, for which Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who has seen it all, could only roll his eyes and laugh at the absurdity of it all.
He wasn’t laughing on Saturday.
“‘Almost’ doesn’t feel very good anymore,” he said, with a note of bitterness.
Asmussen may well still have the best 3-year-old colt in the country, but finishing second got old in a hurry at Pimlico, in large part because of how it went down.
Breaking from the No. 8 post as the 6-5 betting favorite in a nine-horse field, Epicenter didn’t take a crisp step out of the gate to begin with, then was directed toward the rail when the only horse who broke outside of him, Skippylongstocking, angled inward.
So Rosario was stuck with too much work to do, having lost ground that left him at the back of the pack and facing the potential for traffic in front of him every step of the way.
He had no such trouble in the Derby, and only a stunning long shot bomb from Rich Strike late in the race spoiled a thrilling duel between Epicenter and Brown’s other top 3-year-old, Zandon.
Epicenter’s predicament in the Preakness was compounded by the fact that Early Voting and jockey Jose Ortiz caught a dream trip near the front, tracking 18-1 Armagnac in second through a first quarter-mile in 24.32.
“They kind of cut me off right away, and I couldn’t get my position,” Rosario said. “Just unlucky that it worked out that way.
“Yeah, he felt like was moving, moving, but that other horse [Early Voting] got the jump already, and with everything that happened in the back and stuff like that, you’ve got to have energy at that point. We just wanted to be following Early Voting, the winner, but it didn’t happen like that. I sent him out of there, but I didn’t have the horse to keep my spot, they kind of blocked me in, so I had to go inside and ride him from there.”
“Where he was early, and they go 24-and-1, you just left him way too much to do,” Asmussen said. “You’ve got to leave the gates. If you don’t leave the gate, you get one option. The first time by, you saw where he was, he just had too much to overcome. It’s giving too much away.
“I was past surprised, I was disappointed.”
Saratoga Race Course fans won’t be disappointed by the Mechanicville native Brown’s post-Preakness comments about his plans for Early Voting, while also having Zandon in the mix.
“Certainly a race like the Travers. I know it’s a tick further [in distance than the Preakness],” he said. “I don’t believe he will have any trouble getting the mile and a quarter. Growing up just 20 minutes from Saratoga, the Travers would be for me really at the top of the list.
“But there will be some racing before that. We’ll get him back to Belmont, assess him, train him a bit, and then start to map out a campaign that hopefully leads us to the Midsummer Derby.”
It’ll be interesting to see where Epicenter races next. He hasn’t finished worse than second in six straight starts since November, with two Grade II victories, but the last two were killers.
In the Derby, the Epicenter camp had a runner-up finish handed to them in a shocking way; this time, they found their own way to come up just short.
“Maybe couldn’t have done anything different [in the Derby], and I think it was our fault this time. Big difference,” Asmussen said. “It adds to it, it adds to how you feel, and not in the right direction.”
But round and round we go.
Asmussen took some solace in the fact that Early Voting is from the first crop of sire Gun Runner, whom Asmussen trained to a Horse of the Year in 2017 for owner Ron Winchell.
Asmussen remains deeply committed to Gun Runner through his progeny, many of whom helped him have a spectacular Saratoga meet last summer while carrying Winchell’s silks.
The Winchell-owned Epicenter’s sire?
Not This Time.