SARATOGA SPRINGS — The epicenter is supposed to be the worst place to be during an earthquake.
The Epicenter of the 153rd Travers, in contrast, is the best place.
That is, as long as everybody else rides their own horse and doesn’t try to shake up the trip for the morning-line favorite while covering a mile and a quarter around the Saratoga Race Course main track on Saturday.
At least, that’s the way trainer Steve Asmussen sees it.
He’ll saddle Jim Dandy winner Epicenter, the 7-5 favorite, for the 153rd running of Saratoga’s crown jewel stakes race, a Grade I carrying a $1.25 million purse and the potential to have impact on the end-of-year 3-year-old male championship.
Pending results from important races between now and the Breeders’ Cup in November, Epicenter, who was runner-up in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, probably has the inside track for the Eclipse Award, but still doesn’t have a Grade I victory on his resume.
That’s for future consideration, though. On Saturday, he’s clearly the horse to beat, and Asmussen knows the other jockeys recognize that and perhaps will ride accordingly.
“With the way they’re riding races up here, yeah,” Asmussen said Wednesday morning. “My biggest concern is them running over him, you know? He’s the 7-5 morning-line favorite. They’ll be aware of where he’s at.
“It would be lovely if he had only one jockey on him Saturday afternoon, but the chances of that are very small and we all know it. Everybody tap-dancing around … are you worried about it? Yeah, hell, I’m worried about it. I’ve been watching races up here.’
That said, Epicenter’s pilot, Joel Rosario, has been having a spectacular meet, especially in graded stakes.
Rosario has been aboard for seven of Epicenter’s career races, including tight finishes in the Derby and Preakness, either of which could’ve gone Epicenter’s way.
At Churchill Downs, Epicenter and Zandon dueled down the stretch, only to be caught late by 80-1 Rich Strike flying up the rail.
At Pimlico, Epicenter ran into just enough traffic trouble early to fall short of catching Early Voting. Epicenter’s total combined margin of defeat in the Derby and Preakness was two lengths.
All four of those horses will attend a reunion in the Travers, along with Haskell winner Cyberknife, Iowa Derby winner Ain’t Life Grand and two of Early Voting’s stablemates from the barn of Chad Brown, Grade I Blue Grass winner Zandon and Artorius, who is lightly raced but was impressive in winning at a mile and an eighth in the Curlin on the eve of the Jim Dandy.
“Here we sit with the 7-5 morning-line favorite for the Travers and he hasn’t won a Grade I. How’s that even possible?” Asmussen said. “But we witnessed the races, but also witnessing the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness, that just points out how the result Saturday afternoon is not decided.
“The confidence level in how he’s doing and the way he ran over Saratoga is right where you want it. Those questions are answered. So we feel great about that.
“Did we think we were going to get beat in the Derby or the Preakness? Absolutely not. But we watched the races, and you saw the results. I’ve always said they’re so sure of the outcome, they let you bet on it.”
Epicenter was much the best in the Jim Dandy, winning by a length and a half over Zandon. Early Voting is the only other Travers horse who was in that race, finishing fourth.
Brown, a Mechanicville native who covets a Travers win more than anything — as long as it isn’t Derby Week — has by far his best shot at this race, with quantity and quality.
He had considered letting Early Voting sit this one out but was persuaded by a recent breeze by the colt.
Another factor is that, as many trainers are observing, the main track is playing faster than it was at the beginning of the meet.
“He is working better now, or I wouldn’t run him,” Brown said. “I had the option not to run him from the owner. In fact, it appeared after the Jim Dandy that we weren’t going to run him. The horse brought himself into the race the way he worked and trained.”
Brown is among the Travers trainers who noted the absence of Dwyer winner Charge It from the field and how that might affect the race, especially early.
Trainer Todd Pletcher had been looking forward to a good shot to win the Travers with Charge It, but on Sunday was forced to declare the colt out of the race because of a minor foot issue that isn’t expected to have an impact on the rest of Charge It’s 2022 campaign.
The Travers loses a top contender but also a potential pace factor who might’ve helped set it up for the late runners. Now, most are expecting Early Voting to dictate things early.
“The complexion of the race certainly changed with Charge It not going in the race,” Brown said. “You could have a logjam of a tight pack of horses running around the track, potentially.
“Fortunately, I have three great jockeys on the horses. They’re just going to have to figure out the best trip to give each of them a chance to win. So we’ll see. Yeah, it’s one less of the top choices, but on the other hand, the pace of the race changed. These jockeys are going to have to work it out. I’ll be as interested as everyone to see how it shakes out.”
Brown is 0-for-12 with horses in the Travers and didn’t get one to even hit the board until last year, when Miles D was third.
As he does every year, he points out how important the Travers has been in developing his interest in the sport from an early age, and how important it would be to win it.
“I still have many people in my life that remember me from when I was a kid running around the picnic area that are still here as fans and as friends and as family,” Brown said. “To win the race for them, for my hometown, would mean a lot to me personally.
“It would be a lifetime worth of hard work and sacrifices. The only reason I’m in this profession is from coming to Saratoga with my family as a kid. It doesn’t get any bigger than that — to win the jewel of their meet and the history surrounding the race. Coming to the Travers with my parents when I was knee-high is the only reason I’m here in the first place.”
This Travers, whether Brown wins it or not, does have the shadow of his recent legal trouble hanging over it.
He was arrested by Saratoga Springs police on Aug. 17 and arraigned Aug. 18 on a charge of misdemeanor obstruction of breathing after an alleged domestic violence incident at his home.
The judge scheduled Brown to return for formal charges on Sept. 2.
Besides Brown’s Preakness winner Early Voting, the Kentucky Derby winner is in the field after having skipped the Preakness and finishing sixth to Mo Donegal in the Belmont Stakes.
Mo Donegal is out for the rest of the year with an injury.
Rich Strike’s trainer Eric Reed has been pleased with how his colt has trained over the main track at Saratoga since shipping in two weeks ago.
“One of these days, he’ll leave the gate and show the speed he shows in the mornings,” Reed said. “I think there’s a lot more speed in him, and for whatever reason when he leaves the gate he just doesn’t want to get out there running like he does in the morning.
“If he’s inside and is already where he wants to be, he might show a little early speed. And if he does, I think he has a really good chance.”
Cyberknife is the 7-2 second choice off his Haskell win, and his only loss in the past five races was up the track by over 42 lengths behind Rich Strike in the Derby.
Trainer Brad Cox said he’s drawing a line through that one. Otherwise, Cyberknife has won the Grade I Arkansas Derby, Grade III Matt Winn and Grade I Haskell since April.
“The Kentucky Derby itself was a complete throw-out,” Cox said on Wednesday. “They could run that race 100 more times and it would be tough to get that similar result. We were part of the pace presence, unfortunately with two of ours, Zozos and Cyberknife, and wish we weren’t. But we’ve regrouped and it’s worked out really well for Cyberknife ever since.”
One question for Cyberknife is how he’ll handle the Travers mile and a quarter.
The Kentucky Derby was his only race beyond a mile and an eighth, but Cox pointed out that Cyberknife’s sire, Gun Runner, had no problem with a mile and a quarter and that Cyberknife’s broodmare sire, Flower Alley, sired a Derby winner. That was I’ll Have Another, who not only won the Derby but also the Preakness in 2012.
“What we’re trying to do is win, but with regards to him being a pace presence, possibly, that [loss of Charge It] maybe could’ve helped us a little bit,” Cox said. “But once again, I don’t think this horse has to necessarily sit off of horses. He’s pretty honest and can sit right off where you need to be.
“I wouldn’t even be opposed to him being on the lead if the right opportunity presented itself. Don’t take away anything that comes easy, and duck and dive and take back and put horses in behind. If they just break with their natural speed you can’t fight with them. We’ll see how it plays away. Mile and a quarter, I don’t know how aggressive these other guys are going to be out of there.”
The distance question is also a reasonable one for Ain’t Life Grand, who hasn’t raced longer than a mile and a 16th.
“A mile and a quarter, really, to be honest, that’s one of the reasons we wanted to try this, because I think he can run that far,” trainer Kelly Von Hemel said. “We don’t know what quality, but he is a mile-and-an-eighth, mile-and-a-quarter horse, for sure.”
The Travers is one of the races that doesn’t appear on the Hall of Fame resume of trainer Bill Mott, and he’ll be hard-pressed to change that on Saturday with Gilded Age, the longest shot at 30-1.
Gilded Age, a son of 2002 Travers winner Medaglia d’Oro, has just two career wins, a maiden race and an allowance. He was second to Artorius in the Curlin.
“It’d be a huge upset if he won,” Mott said. “The Travers is a tough race, tough competition in there. Our horse ran pretty well over the racetrack here. He was second and he was closing, and we’re hoping that a mile and a quarter suits him well and we can pick up some of the pieces.”
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