Derby Heartbreak Aside, Asmussen and Epicenter Primed for Preakness

There could not have been a more agonizing defeat than the one Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen endured as he attempted to end a 0-for-24 drought in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve on May 7.

Asmussen’s Epicenter seemingly took command by unleashing the kind of sudden, explosive move that Derby winners make. Jockey Joel Rosario could see the finish line and thought he was home free as the massive Churchill Downs crowd erupted in support of the favorite.

“Turning for home, it looked like I was going to win the race,” Rosario said. “And then the other horse came in the last 50 yards and blew by us.”

Rich Strike, who had not initially qualified for the 20-horse field but drew in when Ethereal Road scratched the day before, had indeed blown by and prevailed by three-quarters of a length to the bewilderment of onlookers. The former $30,000 claimer had recorded one of the great upsets in sports history, delivering at 80.80-1 for the faithful few. Only Donerail, at 91-1, brought home the roses at longer odds.

Rosario still cannot believe what transpired beneath the twin spires. “He ran a great race,” he said of his mount. “He did everything I asked him.”

It had to be a crushing disappointment for Asmussen and members of his tight-knit family. And yet you would never know it as North America’s all-time leader with more than 9,700 victories prepares Epicenter for the $1.65 million Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course.

Asmussen continues to shed the best possible light on Epicenter’s near miss, which marked his third runner-up finish in the Derby.

“There are so many things to be proud of – how he handled pre-race, how he handled the race, how he experienced more traffic and dirt than he ever had and how he maneuvered,” Asmussen said. “We’re happy with everything but the last three-quarters of a length, plain and simple.”

Asmussen has always kept a positive mindset. It is perhaps the only way to survive and thrive in an industry in which hearts are routinely broken by fragile Thoroughbreds and in which even elite trainers lose with four of every five horses they start.

Scott Blasi, Asmussen’s top assistant, put it best. “If you don’t learn to turn the page in this game, you’re going to be a miserable human,” he said earlier this week. “What’s done is done. Move on.”

While instant celebrity Rich Strike points toward the June 11 Belmont Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets, Asmussen is doing everything possible to help Epicenter win the Preakness as a sweet consolation prize but a consolation prize nonetheless. Keith Feustle, the Maryland Jockey Club oddsmaker, tabbed the bay son of Not This Time as the 6-5 favorite. Lightly-raced Early Voting, one of six horses in the nine-horse field that did not compete in the Derby, is listed as the 7-2 second choice.

Epicenter arrived at Pimlico shortly after 2 p.m. ET on Tuesday after being vanned from Churchill Downs. He shows every sign of adjusting well to his new surroundings.

“He’s settled in nicely. He looks very comfortable, relaxed,” Asmussen said. “He went over the racetrack well.”

He acknowledged that the quick two-week turnaround from the Derby is a concern. “He’s a big horse coming back in 14 days,” the trainer noted. “You make sure he’s drinking plenty of water and hydrated.”

Asmussen, 56, is bidding for his third Preakness triumph. He broke through with Curlin in 2007 as that 3-year-old went on to consecutive Horse of the Year titles. Two years later, Rachel Alexandra added her name to a list now comprised of six fillies that won the 1 3/16-mile middle jewel of the Triple Crown. Longines Kentucky Oaks heroine Secret Oath is looking to share in that history as part of this year’s edition for legendary trainer D. Wayne Lukas.

Epicenter certainly has the résumé to turn back Secret Oath and the rest. Other than a sixth-place finish in his Sept. 18 debut at Churchill Downs, he has never finished worse than second through seven career starts.

A $260,000 purchase as a yearling for Winchell Thoroughbreds, he was almost unbeatable during a four-race stretch at Fair Grounds as he was prepared for the rigors of the spring classics.

Epicenter dominated by 6 ½ lengths in the Dec. 26 Gun Runner Stakes before he was overtaken by a head in the Jan. 22 Lecomte Stakes. He rebounded from that with a geared-down 2 ¾-length score in the Feb. 19 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford and a convincing 2 ¾-length victory in the March 26 Louisiana Derby. His career earnings of $1,610,639 dwarf those of most of his Preakness rivals.

“He’s been beautifully consistent in his training,” said Asmussen, hoping a Preakness victory might ease the sting of a shocking Derby upset.