SARATOGA SPRINGS — Steve Asmussen fielded a question Sunday morning asking for an example of a 3-year-old he’s trained who experienced aftereffects later in the season from having weathered the grueling Kentucky Derby prep season and Triple Crown series.
He laughed and said, “Every single one of them that wasn’t Curlin or Gun Runner.”
Judging from how Epicenter won the 153rd Travers on Saturday, you can probably keep him off that long list.
After Epicenter finished second in both the Derby and Preakness, Asmussen’s barn regrouped and got their colt back to a level of performance that was unbeatable in the Travers, and puts Epicenter at the forefront of the 3-year-old male division.
On Sunday morning, Asmussen reflected on the journey that got Epicenter to this point, after two losses in Triple Crown races that cast gloom over the barn, but apparently had no negative impact on the horse.
“When you’re in this, you’re optimistic,” he said. “And in the spring, we were so impressed with him, with how physically talented he was and how he was doing that, man, this is as good a chance as you can have.
“And it not going ideally for us — well, not winning, simply not winning the Derby or the Preakness — did not waver in who you felt that he was. I honestly think that it affected our mood and our attitude far more than it ever did his. I mean, he was willing. He’s a very proud horse. Everything you can see about him, he’s a very proud horse, always has been.”
One of Asmussen’s concerns heading into the Travers was whether some of the other jockeys would ride their horses with the idea of making things difficult for Epicenter, knowing he was clearly the one to beat.
That worry went out the window as soon as Joel Rosario got Epicenter out of the starting gate cleanly and alertly from the No. 6 post in the eight-horse field.
“It looked like his race yesterday,” Asmussen said. “I’ve watched the replay so I could pay attention to some other things, because of how fixated I was on watching him during the running of the race. And just how he just looked like the winner.
“He was obviously very comfortable behind the pace that they had around the first turn, the whole way down the backside. A little bit concerned with the two horses [Cyberknife and Ain’t Life Grand] beside each other and Early Voting having him in a position, just briefly. But then they separated pretty quickly, and when Cyberknife left Ain’t Life Grand, the quickness he showed just to get in position. Then him and Cyberknife went together for at least an eighth of a mile, and then he was really smooth through the wire.”
Epicenter’s path from Derby/Preakness to the Travers included a short break from hard training that led into a commanding performance in the Jim Dandy on July 30.
He faced a tough field in the Travers, but displayed his Jim Dandy form again, stayed well out of traffic trouble and was much the best horse in the race.
“I do believe, with the break, the freshening after the Derby and the Preakness, that both of his races since, I think he has a lot better understanding of how to win,” Asmussen said.
“We backed off, we shedrowed him awhile, we jogged him for a couple of weeks, and then we resumed training. Just step away. You watch him go, he uses good energy going and stuff. We just put him in a position where he could do less for awhile.”
Asmussen, who was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 2016, has been doing this plenty long enough to have seen horses drop off after the punishing Triple Crown trail, which starts with the Derby preps beginning in January.
“Whether it’s 2-year-olds that have done too much or whatever, I think the classic is a barometer in which you’ve established a level of talent that very few horses are capable of maintaining afterwards,” he said. “It makes it very easy to know you’ve done too much. But it happens at all stages.
“At this level, we’re given tremendous opportunities, but not getting ahead of them, you concentrate on that. You want the most out of them, but you want the most of what they’re physically and mentally capable of … then. And to keep going in the right direction.
“When you say time of year, distance of races, you’re also talking classics and two turns for 3-year-olds and where they’re at in physical development. You like to see growth from a weight and physical growth, but you don’t want to see too much. And you don’t want it to plateau. You have a model, so to speak, and you just try to keep it in front of you.”
Epicenter’s primary competition for the Eclipse Award for 3-year-old male now appears to be coming from a horse who won’t be running around two turns anytime soon, and did not run in any of the Triple Crown races or the Travers.
You can make a case for the Chad Brown-trained Jack Christopher, who won the Grade I Allen Jerkens on Travers Day.
Besides that, he has won the Grade I Woody Stephens and the Grade II Pat Day Mile, and his only loss was around two turns, a solid third to Cyberknife in the Haskell.
Jack Christopher could be pointed to either the Breeders’ Cup Sprint or Dirt Mile.
Brown had three entered in the Travers, and only third-place Zandon hit the board.
“He ran a good race,” Brown told the New York Racing Association. “He made up quite a bit of ground on Cyberknife and nearly got him for second.
“The race to win was not going to be for anyone the way Epicenter ran. Of the other horses that ran, he probably ran the second-best race. He’s a very consistent horse and we’ll just have to see how he comes out the race.”
Artorius and Early Voting finished seventh and eighth, respectively.
“We’re still evaluating them. No major issues,” Brown said.
Travers Day generated a record all-sources betting handle of $55,559,315.
That broke the mark of $52,129,346 on Travers Day in 2019.
Saturday’s paid admission number of 49,672 — just short of a 50,000 sellout — was the highest on Travers Day since 2015, when Triple Crown winner American Pharoah ran in the main event. Last year, paid admission was 44,507.
On-track handle was $10,373,124, up 10.3% from 2021 ($9,406,526).
The final four racing days of the 2022 meet feature a flurry of stakes races Thursday through next Monday, Labor Day.
Americanrevolution, Dynamic One, First Captain, Informative, Keepmeinmind, Olympiad, Tax and Untreated are probable for the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup on Saturday, with Brooklyn Strong and Chess Chief listed as possible.
Also on that card, War Like Goddess, Coastana, Temple City Terror and Virginia Joy are lined up for the Grade II Flower Bowl.
The final leg of the graded stakes for 2-year-olds on the dirt, the Spinaway and Hopeful, are scheduled for Sunday and Monday, respectively.
Aunt Shirley, Just Cindy, Kaling, Leave No Trace, Naughty Gal, Sabra Tuff and Wonder Wheel are probable for the Spinaway.
The Hopeful is expected to draw Blazing Sevens, Bourbon Bash, Disarm, Forte and Mo Strike, with Congruent possible.
Trainer Bill Mott took a side trip to West Virginia Friday night to saddle Art Collector in the $1 million Charles Town Classic, and Art Collector won it for the second year in a row, 22 days after he had won the Alydar at Saratoga.
Also on the Charles Town Classic, Mott won with Frank’s Rockette in the Misty Bennett Pink Ribbon, four weeks after she had finished second to Kimari in the Grade II Honorable Miss at Saratoga.
Mott wasn’t so fortunate with one of his stable stars at Del Mar on Saturday, when Speaker’s Corner finished fourth in the Grade II Pat O’Brien as the even-money betting favorite.
Since winning three graded stakes to start the season, including the Grade I Carter at Aqueduct in April, Speaker’s Corner has lost three straight.