Winchell Seeks First Win in Triple Crown with Epicenter

May 20th, 2022

Asmussen: Can’t Speculate How the Preakness Will Unfold

McPeek Taking Another Shot with Creative Minister

BALTIMORE – While Steve Asmussen has trained two winners of the Preakness Stakes (G1), owner Ron Winchell is still seeking his family’s first victory in any Triple Crown race.

Winchell believes Epicenter, the 6-5 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s 147th Preakness at Pimlico Race Course, has all the tools for that breakthrough triumph. Of course, he thought that two weeks ago. That’s when Epicenter was the favorite for the Kentucky Derby (G1) and turned in a huge effort, only to get passed late by 80-1 shot Rich Strike, who closed from last behind a record early pace.

“Obviously that was a tough beat, and I don’t want to take anything away from the winner,” Winchell said Thursday in a media Zoom call. “It felt like we showed up with a horse that was very prepared to win the race, mentally, physically. He had the right running style. We felt very confident where we were at. Of course, there’s the old saying, ‘Pace makes the race.’ The Derby is a race where you’re always thrown a variable. You’re unaware of it until the starting gate opens.

“… Turning for home, he had the explosive run and I felt really confident that we were going to get it done,” he added. “It was heartbreaking to get run down at the wire. You had Zandon, a horse we were kind of tracking, and you felt like you had him at bay, and it looked like we were going to get it done. I kind of saw that horse sneaking up on the rail. I’ve watched a million races, and you just have that sinking feeling.

“Last year we had Midnight Bourbon in the Preakness, and he got run down at the wire by Rombauer. Kind of similar fashion, pace scenario. That happened last year in the Preakness, and this happened this year in the Derby,” he continued. “These Triple Crown races are very eluding for me. So, we’ll see what happens on Saturday.”

Winchell’s late father, Verne, ran one horse in the Preakness – Arkansas Derby winner Olympio, who finished fourth in 1991. Ron Winchell has run three Preakness starters, with Midnight Bourbon second last year and Tenfold third in 2018.

“You love and hate to be the favorite,” he said. “It’s good because everybody is validating where you feel like your ability is. The second part is that you pretty much have a target on your back. And then if you don’t win, it’s like ‘Oh, what happened to the favorite?’ It’s kind of like the Derby. That was a feel-good story for a lot of people, the longest shot beating the favorite in the stretch in dramatic fashion. It wasn’t a feel-good story for me, but for the rest of the world… probably.”

As far as the Preakness, Winchell said, “I think if he shows up and runs, then we’re in good position.”

The Preakness has been a better predictor of 3-year-old championships than the Derby. Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman points out 18 Preakness winners (including two fillies) in the last 25 years have been crowned as Eclipse champions, versus 13 for Derby winners.

“You have more variables in the Derby,” Winchell said. “I think there are more butterflies from ‘Hey, I think we can get beat by circumstances,’ which is what happened. The Preakness, a nine-horse field versus 20 horses, less things can happen. I get a little more nervous with the unknown variables than the known variables. I think that’s the difference between the Preakness and the Derby.”

Asmussen: Can’t Speculate How the Preakness Will Unfold

Trainer Steve Asmussen suggested Friday morning that it is futile to speculate how Saturday’s Preakness Stakes (G1) will unfold at Pimlico Race Course in the aftermath of the Kentucky Derby (G1), which produced the fastest first quarter of a mile in the storied race’s history.

“[Jockeys] might compensate and it will be the slowest first quarter ever in the Preakness. Who’s to say?” he said. “[Jockey] Joel [Rosario] has a tremendous amount of confidence in Epicenter. Epicenter, I think, is in a great rhythm as far as maintaining a consistent speed, and that’s what we’re looking for. Whatever everybody else does around that, not our business.”

The Preakness gave Asmussen his first Triple Crown race victory. Jess Jackson’s Curlin got up in the final stride to beat Kentucky Derby winner and juvenile champion Street Sense by a head in the 2007 Preakness. Asmussen teamed with Jackson again two years later with Rachel Alexandra, purchased by the wine magnate after her record 20-length Kentucky Oaks (G1) romp. About 12 days after the filly changed barns, Jackson and Asmussen had their second Preakness as Rachel Alexandra held off Derby winner Mine That Bird by a length.

Curlin went on to be the 2007 and 2008 Horse of the Year, his Grade 1 victories including the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Dubai World Cup and the Jockey Club Gold Cup twice. Rachel Alexandra was the 2009 Horse of the Year after beating the boys again in Monmouth Park’s Haskell (G1) and older males in Saratoga’s Woodward (G1).

“Here at Pimlico, Curlin’s Preakness victory over the Derby winner was such a great race that day,” reflected Asmussen, who last year became North America’s all-time winningest trainer. “The photo finish. The moment when they put his number up. You thought he won when they went under the wire, but we’ve all been mistaken about photos in the past. But, that was an extremely special moment in our professional career.

“Rachel, it’s separate from everything else. I’ve been involved with great horses. But with Rachel, when you walked out there, you never felt that percentage of people truly, honestly rooting for one horse,” he added. “It was Rachel against everybody, and everybody seemed to be on Rachel’s side. We were along for the ride. That was a wonderful, unique experience to be a part of.”

Asmussen has been connected to Epicenter since he was purchased for $260,000 as a yearling from breeder Westward Farms of Bowling Green, Ky. Asmussen’s parents give all the Winchell babies their earliest preparation to become racehorses at their training center in Laredo, Texas.

One of Epicenter’s chief rivals in the $1.65 million Preakness figures to be Kentucky Oaks winner Secret Oath, trained by six-time Preakness winner D. Wayne Lukas, now 86.

“Wayne, at his tender age, it’s a beautiful thing and a great story,” Asmussen said. “… Wayne is a very special person in horse racing, beyond iconic, and his positive attitude and everything he’s accomplished and continues to do so. It’s a lot to go up against.”

Asked if he saw himself training at 86 and still riding the pony, Asmussen laughed and said, “It’s inspirational. I have a longtime connection with Wayne through my parents. They’re lifelong friends. I grew up knowing Wayne as my parents’ friend. You cannot believe how encouraging, how positive he is, how helpful he is to young people, to anybody coming up. Nothing negative, all positive, all forward, what are we going to do next? 

“Far more impressive than him training at 86 and getting on the pony is his consistent attitude and how positive he’s always been about horse racing,” Asmussen concluded. 

McPeek Taking Another Shot with Creative Minister  

Kenny McPeek knows something about taking shots in big races, as he will be doing at Pimlico Race Course Saturday when Creative Minister makes his stakes debut in the $1.65 million Preakness Stakes (G1).

Rated fifth at 10-1 in the morning line, Creative Minister is coming off an allowance victory on the May 7 Kentucky Derby (G1) undercard at Churchill Downs.

Taking a shot was how the Kentucky-based trainer obtained his two victories in the Triple Crown series. McPeek captured the 2002 Belmont Stakes (G1) with Sarava, who came off a victory in the Sir Barton on the Preakness undercard to produce a $142.50 win mutuel, a record for the Triple Crown finale. McPeek won the COVID-delayed Preakness in October of 2020, when the filly Swiss Skydiver outdueled Kentucky Derby winner Authentic by a neck.

“What is it Wayne Gretzky said? ‘You never make a shot you don’t take,’” he said. “I’ve taken a couple of them and hit it, between Sarava and Swiss. Look, that’s the fun of the sport. It’s great being involved in these kinds of things. If you feel like you’ve got a legitimate chance to just hit the board, you can’t be scared, because a lot happens.”

With Creative Minister breaking from Post #2, McPeek envisions jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. tucking in behind the speed.

“I don’t think he has any choice,” McPeek said. “But as far as guessing [how the race will unfold], I gave up that years ago.

“Early Voting is going to be close. I think he’s going to need to slow the pace down to win. But is Epicenter going to allow him to do that? Once we leg ’em up, it’s out of our hands. I’ve seen some crazy stuff.”

Lukas: ‘We’d just like a smooth trip’ for Secret Oath

Briland Farm’s filly Secret Oath went out to the track Friday morning for what trainer D. Wayne Lukas called “light training” the day before the 147th Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico Race Course.

Lukas smiled when an interviewer asked how the winner of the Kentucky Oaks (G1) was doing on the eve of Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown.

“She better be feeling good because it’s a tough spot,” Lukas said.

The chestnut daughter of the late sire Arrogate has five wins in eight races. She is aiming to become the seventh filly to win the Preakness. The most recent was Swiss Skydiver in 2020. Secret Oath is rated at 9-2 in the morning line and will start from Post #4.

Lukas, 86, did not reveal much about his strategy for the race as he seeks his record-tying seventh win in the Preakness. He said he will leave it in the hands of Luis Saez, who he has used in many stakes races through the years.

“Every trainer will tell you the same thing: just a good trip so that you’re able to do what you’d like to do, instead of what they dictate to you,” Lukas said. “The race will dictate what you can do or can’t do, but every one of us as trainers are going say we’d just like that smooth trip.”

Secret Oath’s past-performance lines show that she has been effective sitting off the pace early on and then zipping up into contention on the second turn.

“She has a devastating kick,” Lukas said. “When you ask her, she really accelerates. She’s got a tremendous turn of foot. If we can just clock them a little bit.”

Lukas won the first of his six Preaknesses in 1980 with his first starter in the race, Codex. His most recent victory was in 2013 with Oxbow

All Systems ‘Go’ for Early Voting

All systems are ‘go’ for Early Voting, the Klaravich Stables colt trained by Chad Brown. The son of Gun Runner drew Post #5 in the field of nine and is rated the 7-2 second choice in the morning line for Saturday’s 147th Preakness Stakes (G1).

Brown’s assistant Baldo Hernandez said the colt covered 1 ¼ miles Friday morning during a routine gallop around the track at Pimlico Race Course.

“He’s kind of a laid-back horse,” Hernandez said. “He was really nice out on the track and came back happy.”

The Preakness will be Early Voting’s first start since he finished second by a neck in the Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct on April 9.

O’Neill Expects ‘Best Version of Happy Jack’

Calumet Farm’s Happy Jack jogged at Pimlico Race Course Friday morning before schooling in the starting gate in preparation for a start in Saturday’s147th running of the Preakness Stakes (G1).

The colt, trained by Doug O’Neill, is 30-1 in the Preakness morning line and will start from Post #6. There is some Preakness mojo in the barn as Happy Jack is a son of 2013 Preakness winner Oxbow. O’Neill won the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown in 2012 with I’ll Have Another.

The perfect trip O’Neill envisions for Happy Jack would be for him to start the race in mid-pack.

“That would be ideal,” O’Neill said. “If he is within two lengths turning for home, I think we could pull a Rich Strike here.”

Rich Strike was the 80-1 longshot that provided the second-biggest upset in Kentucky Derby (G1) history when he won the Run for the Roses two weeks ago.

Happy Jack is one of three Preakness horses that most recently ran in the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 7. Happy Jack finished 14th in the Run for the Roses.

“He is fit and he is ready,” O’Neill said. “He is an ideal candidate to run back in two weeks. If you have a strong individual, it can be a real easy jump going from the Derby to the Preakness. I think he looks phenomenal. He was bucking and playing and walking the shed row Thursday afternoon and showed good energy on the track (Friday). He seems like he is the best version of Happy Jack right now.” 

He will be ridden in the Preakness for the first time by Tyler Gaffalione.

Happy Jack has just one win on his resume – that coming in his first career start on Jan. 22. Since then, he has raced exclusively in graded stakes, the best finishes being thirds in the San Felipe (G2) and Santa Anita Derby (G1).

 Irad Ortiz Jr. Gives Yakteen Confidence in Armagnac

Trainer Tim Yakteen has yet to talk to jockey Irad Ortiz Jr., who will be the pilot aboard Armagnac in Saturday’s 147th running of the Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico Race Course. They will chat before the race, but, for the most part, Yakteen will let Ortiz do his thing.

Why wouldn’t he? Ortiz has won the Eclipse Award as the nation’s leading jockey three times. The 29-year-old Ortiz is the current national leader in riding wins and earnings. He will ride SF Racing and partners’ Armagnac for the first time Saturday.

“When you have riders like Irad, Johnny V [John Velazquez], Mike Smith … you go into a race with a lot of confidence,” Yakteen said.

The Preakness will be the sixth career start for Armagnac. Velazquez has ridden him twice and Smith was on once. In his last two starts, the jockey was Drayden Van Dyke.

Ortiz has yet to win a Preakness from three tries. His best finish came last year when was second aboard Midnight Bourbon.

Armagnac is 12-1 in the Preakness morning line and will start from Post #7. The son of Quality Road is coming off a gate-to-wire win in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Santa Anita on May 8. The only other win on his resume is a maiden score on Jan. 21, also at Santa Anita.

In his two stakes races, he was a non-factor, finishing fourth in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) on April 9 and sixth in the San Felipe (G2).

Friday, Armagnac hit the Pimlico track at 6:30 a.m. and galloped 1 3/8 miles.

“We’re all set. He looks good,” Yakteen said.

In both of his victories, Armagnac has gone to the lead and not been caught. His maiden score came by 2 ¼ lengths, his allowance win by 4 ¼ lengths.

“Ideal trip (in the Preakness)? Gate to wire,” Yakteen said. “There you go. That’s it.”

One thing all the horses running on Preakness Day will have to deal with is the weather forecast. The temperature is predicted to climb as high as 95 degrees.

“All we can do is try and keep them as hydrated as much as we are permitted,” Yakteen said. “Just keep them comfortable.”

Joseph: Optimistic and Realistic about Middle Jewel

Daniel Alonso’s Skippylongstocking, who finished third in the April 9 Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct in his most recent start, is rated at 20-1 in the morning line for Saturday’s 147th Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico Race Course.

“I’m optimistic. The horse has had a good week and he’s coming off a good run,” Saffie Joseph Jr. said. “I’m realistic. I know it’s a tough race, but I feel like we have a chance.”

Skippylongstocking, who has shown vast improvement while stretching out to 1 1/8 miles in his two most recent starts, will break from the far-outside Post #9, one stall outside 6-5 morning-line favorite Epicenter. Joseph is hopeful the son of 2016 Preakness winner Exaggerator and jockey Junior Alvarado will be in good position to benefit from a fast pace.

“I’d like to see a couple horses out from hooking up with each other setting a good tempo, and he could be anywhere from five to eight lengths off the leaders in a good spot,” Joseph said. “I’d like to see him save some ground and hopefully find the right spots when they come.”

Sano Hopes Velazquez Can Bring Out Best in Simplification

Tami Bobo and Tristan De Meric’s Simplification has demonstrated versatility during his eight-race career, registering a front-running victory in the Jan. 1 Mucho Macho Man going a one-turn mile and closing from well off the pace to capture the March 5 Fountain of Youth (G2) at Gulfstream Park.

Although versatile, the son of Not This Time hasn’t received the best of set-ups in his two most recent races, particularly in the May 7 Kentucky Derby (G1) at Churchill Downs, where he fell back to 15th while racing wide during the early going before closing to fourth with an extremely wide rally. In his prior start in the Florida Derby (G1) at Gulfstream, Simplification pressed a strong pace while racing between horses before weakening late to finish third.

“In the Kentucky Derby, he was too close to the pace. In the Derby, I wanted him to relax, but he was too far back,” trainer Antonio Sano said. 

Sano has turned to Hall of Famer John Velazquez to work out a much more beneficial trip for Simplification in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico Race Course.

Everyone is Happy in Team Fenwick

Villa Rosa Farm and Harlo Stable’s Fenwick went out to the track at Pimlico Race Course for a routine gallop Friday morning, some 37 hours before he will go to the starting gate for the 147th Preakness Stakes (G1).   

“We took him out, gave him a lope around there,“ trainer Kevin McKathan said.  “He seemed happy and we’re happy with how he’s doing everything.”

Though Fenwick has but one win in six career starts, McKathan has been enthusiastic about his ability to compete in the Preakness. The chestnut son of Curlin had traffic trouble in the Blue Grass (G1), ended up last of 11 by 36 lengths and is rated at 50-1 on the morning line. McKathan said that Fenwick should be taken seriously if he can work out a trip on or near the lead.

“I think there are several ways to be successful, but how I’d like to see it is: I want him to fall out of there and get good position,” McKathan said. “What I would like for him is not to get stopped again. Not to get shut down [and] stop and start and stop and start. If he gets into his highest cruising speed they’ll recognize him. He will be tough to catch.”

Still, McKathan said Fenwick does not need to have the lead.

“I’m not looking to be in a drag race with anyone, to go out and do stupid things,” McKathan said. “He just needs to be free running. So, getting to that first turn and not getting covered up is what we’re going to try. That was the plan in the Blue Grass, and he just got shut down and stopped.”

Florent Geroux will ride Fenwick for the first time. Geroux’s best finish in five rides in the Preakness was a third on Owendale in 2019.

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