SARATOGA SPRINGS — There were two different definitions of the word “relieved” for trainer Steve Asmussen on Saturday.
There was pressure on Jackie’s Warrior to set a Saratoga Race Course historical precedent in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt in the eighth-race stakes. He did that, with an easy win.
Then in the ninth race, the Grade II Jim Dandy, relief came in a different form.
Against three talented rivals, Asmussen’s hard-luck colt, Epicenter, faced the prospect of heading back to the barn without a pit stop and photo in the winner’s circle, again.
Epicenter hadn’t seen a winner’s circle anywhere since the Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds on March 26, despite terrific runner-up performances in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
He needed this one.
He got it.
And pretty convincingly, too, certainly enough so to make him the leading contender for the Travers Stakes on Aug. 27.
Under Joel Rosario, who also rode Jackie’s Warrior in the Vanderbilt, Epicenter waited patiently in the back of the four-horse cluster, then made his move on the outside at the top of the stretch, passed his three rivals and won by a commanding length and a half over Zandon in front of an announced paid-admission crowd of 37,476.
“It was very important to me,” Asmussen said. “After what you felt like were two gut-wrenching losses, I’m just so happy to see him back in the winner’s circle.
“This spring, this horse ran fast. He ran numbers that show he’s a very good horse. So for him to do it at Saratoga at this time, knowing where we’re at a month out from the Travers is very important. Very important.”
“He looked relaxed and did everything when I asked, so we look forward for that [the Travers],” said Rosario, who has been on Epicenter for all six of his 2022 starts.
Besides the Jim Dandy and Louisiana Derby, those races include two others at Fair Grounds prior to the Louisiana Derby and a second by three-quarters of a length to Rich Strike in the Kentucky Derby and a second by a length and a quarter to Early Voting in the Preakness.
The Epicenter camp was well-familiar with trainer Chad Brown’s two Jim Dandy horses, Early Voting and Zandon, who dueled with Epicenter in what looked like would be a 1-2 finish either way between the two in the Derby.
Then Rich Strike, at betting odds of 80-1, struck late to catch them both just before the wire.
Adding to Asmussen’s anxiety and uncertainty in the Jim Dandy was the fact that Epicenter had never raced at Saratoga in eight previous starts.
But he handled the track surface, and the pace scenario that developed down the backstretch.
Five were drawn for the Jim Dandy, but long shot Western River ran in the Curlin on Friday and scratched from the Saturday race, so No. 2 Epicenter inherited the inside post, with the 1-hole vacated.
Ridden by Jose Ortiz, Early Voting bobbled at the start and brushed with Tawny Port, but recovered quickly and took the lead down the backstretch through a reasonable 24.22 for the first quarter-mile, 48.28 for the half-mile and 1:12.26 for three-quarter.
The even fractions gave Rosario an opportunity to parcel out Epicenter’s pace behind Early Voting without seeing the need to push the issue.
“He broke well, but took a little bit of time,” Rosario said. “It looked like there were a couple of the horses that wanted to go and get a position, so I just let him be where he was and happy.”
“A four-horse field, I was very happy with a solid, steady pace,” Asmussen said. “I think 48-and-1 [fifth of a second], 12 [seconds] every eighth of a mile was what we were targeting.
“He was very comfortable. With the scratch of the 1 horse, that put him in the 1-hole, he [Rosario] made a decision early not to try to be squeezed up in there and stuff. Once he eased him out of that spot, Epicenter was carrying Joel very comfortably the whole way down the backside. I was a little concerned how far back he was. They threw up the middle fraction in 12, they stayed at 12, they didn’t back it up in his face. He had a shot from there.”
“I didn’t have that type of race in my mind,” said Zandon’s jockey, Flavien Prat. “I thought there would be a bit more battle between Early Voting and Epicenter. Unfortunately, it looked like Epicenter didn’t jump well, so I broke well and got myself there. It’s probably not where he wants to be, but it was the natural thing.”
Early Voting eventually dropped back to fourth at the finish, 3 3-4 lengths behind when Epicenter hit the wire, as Zandon couldn’t keep up but held onto second without any difficulty over Tawny Port.
Brown lost a Travers prospect when Jack Christopher finished third in the Haskell at Monmouth Park last weekend — he’ll point toward shorter distances now, like perhaps the seven-furlong Allen Jerkens on Travers Day.
Then Brown added a Travers prospect to his mix when Artorius won the Curlin on Friday, but now he’ll have to evaluate what to do with his two Jim Dandy runners next time out.
“I thought Epicenter was going to go [early] today, and I thought we would have a target or be right next to him,” Brown said. “[Early Voting] sort of inherited the lead, and that’s fine. On paper, most tracks you’d say 12 [seconds] and change [per furlong] is not too bad, but this track has been pretty tiring. Clearly, Early Voting just didn’t handle this track. We’ll see how he comes back.
“As far as Zandon goes, he was a little closer than he probably wants to run. I don’t think Flavien had any other option. I thought he rode the horse fine. Hopefully, in a bigger field, I can get the horse back. Hats off to the winner — he didn’t break that well, and he still circled the field and won nicely. He was the best horse today.”
Epicenter may have been the best horse on May 7, when he was second in the Kentucky Derby, and may have also been the best horse on May 21, when he had a nightmare trip, while Early Voting had smooth sailing.
That all seemed like ancient history after he got back to winning form in the Jim Dandy, with a very promising view of the Travers on Aug. 27.
“What I loved about it is another eighth [of a mile] for the Travers — and this being his first race ever at Saratoga — we know what’s on the menu now,” Asmussen said. “We want to be as ready as we possibly can.
“I didn’t expect it to give him any problems, but it’s a great relief for him to run his race over this track. We’ve had some good runs in the Travers, a couple thirds and a second, but, boy, we’d love to win it.”