SARATOGA SPRINGS — It’s finally time for Epicenter to take a step forward.
Trainer Steve Asmussen may have been stewing on May 21 after his talented colt came up just short in the Preakness to Early Voting, especially as it came on the heels of another gut-wrenching second in the Kentucky Derby two weeks earlier.
But with the Triple Crown season over, the 3-year-old male division is cranking up again for the second half of the year, starting with the Haskell last weekend and continuing with the $600,000 Grade II Jim Dandy at Saratoga Race Course on Saturday.
And Asmussen expects Epicenter, who hasn’t finished worse than second in seven straight starts dating to September, to be right in the thick of it.
“If he doesn’t win the Travers, we’re in the exact same position we are right now, with a very good 3-year-old that doesn’t have a Grade I win yet,” Asmussen said on Thursday morning.
The Jim Dandy is a traditional steppingstone to the $1.25 million Grade I Travers, which will be run Aug. 27.
At 3-2, Epicenter is the morning-line favorite for the Jim Dandy by a sliver over 8-5 Early Voting, who enjoyed a free-running trip in winning the Preakness, while Epicenter had a nightmare trip that began with him having to steady under Joel Rosario shortly after leaving the starting gate.
It was in stark contrast to Epicenter’s loss in the Derby, when he and Zandon were on their way to a photo finish for first until 80-1 Rich Strike nailed them both just before the wire.
Moments after the Preakness, as he was walking off the Pimlico main track, Asmussen said, “ ‘Almost’ doesn’t feel very good anymore.”
Epicenter was based at Fair Grounds in New Orleans in the lead-up to the Kentucky Derby, winning the Grade II Risen Star and Grade II Louisiana Derby.
He went off as the betting favorite in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness and remains in the top tier of the division that has become a more compact group through the Triple Crown (Mo Donegal won the Belmont Stakes but is on the shelf with an injury for the rest of the year).
In the Jim Dandy, Epicenter will face the two Chad Brown-trained colts he’s already tangled with, Early Voting and Zandon.
“He got as close as he could without winning them,” Asmussen said of the first two legs of the Triple Crown. “They aren’t going to rerun them, so you move on. I think off of his spring form, regrouping after the Preakness with our eyes on the Travers is what we have done. And I expect him to run well in the Jim Dandy, but we need him to move forward, regardless of the outcome there.”
Brown had considered running Early Voting in the Haskell, but brought him to Saratoga instead.
Zandon also has a Grade I win to his credit, in the Blue Grass at Keeneland, and Brown said he’s put on weight since the Derby, so Brown will have a formidable 1-2 punch in the Jim Dandy.
“I really believe that they both have established themselves for quite some time now to be two of the top-five 3-year-old dirt colts in the country pretty consistently throughout most of the year,” Brown told the New York Racing Association.
“The order might change around those top five, and the fifth horse that’s in that group might change a little bit, but they’re consistently in that group. We’re at the midway marker, so there’s a lot more racing to take place and these horses are going to have to continue to maintain strong campaigns to stay in that group.”
The Jim Dandy field also includes Tawny Port, who was seventh in the Kentucky Derby and skipped the second two legs of the Triple Crown. The connections for Western River, entered in the Jim Dandy as a 20-1 long shot, chose to run him in the Curlin on Friday instead.
Tawny Port comes into the Jim Dandy off a victory by a length over Grade I Florida Derby winner White Abarrio in the Ohio Derby at Thistledown on June 25.
“He’s improving,” trainer Brad Cox said. “He’s been a horse that’s been a little late to get to the races. He didn’t make his debut until December. He’s going the right way and he seems to be doing really well up here. He’s had three nice works, and we’ll see how he stacks up against this very good group we’ll ask him to run against.”
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Categories: At The Track, Sports