Epicenter Takes Louisiana Derby, Echo Zulu Prevails in Fair Grounds Oaks

On the same day in which Japanese horses won five races in Dubai, Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen and Eclipse Award-winning jockey Joel Rosario teamed to win five races themselves March 26 at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots, capped by the $1 million Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby with Epicenter.

The 3-year-old son of Not This Time rated in third early under Rosario before he was angled out in the stretch and overhauled pacesetting Zozos. He won by 2 1/2 lengths, racing 1 3/16 miles in a track-record 1:54.38. The Winchell Thoroughbreds-owned colt paid $4.

Pioneer of Medina finished third, two lengths behind the runner-up in a solid effort that came after he got loose in the post parade after unseating jockey Tyler Gaffalione. Grade 1 winner Rattle N Roll ran a well-beaten fourth, 3 1/2 lengths behind Pioneer of Medina.

The Louisiana Derby, the longest domestic prep in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series, provided qualifying points on a 100-40-20-10 scale to its top four finishers toward the May 7 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve at Churchill Downs. The 100-point pickup left Epicenter with a Kentucky Derby Leaderboard-topping total of 164 points.

Churchill Downs uses the points system for promoting the Derby, and as a preference system when the race oversubscribed, as it often does. Runner-up Zozos also likely has enough overall points (40) to make the 20-horse Derby field, based on how the race has shaped up in recent years, with Pioneer of Medina (25) and Rattle N Roll (20) on the historical bubble.

Just two winners of the Louisiana Derby have gone on to score in the Kentucky Derby: Black Gold in 1924, and Grindstone in 1996. Three others, Funny Cide, Country House, and Mandaloun, triumphed in the Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs after losses in the Louisiana Derby. Country House and Mandaloun won by disqualification.

Hot Rod Charlie, last year’s Louisiana Derby winner, was third across the wire in the Derby and ultimately promoted to second after Medina Spirit was disqualified for a medication violation.

Asmussen, who has long stabled his best horses at Fair Grounds and holds an appreciation for the track surface there, is hopeful Epicenter can represent Louisiana well in the Derby.

“Fair Grounds has a tremendous amount to do with his development and we need to show them this is the way to get to the Derby by winning it,” he said.

The Louisiana Derby was the third stakes win of the Fair Grounds meet for Epicenter, who won the Gun Runner Stakes Dec. 26 and the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford Feb. 19. His only local defeat came in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes, when he set a hot pace and was nipped on the wire by Call Me Midnight.

He faced that rival again Saturday, but this time Call Me Midnight could not keep pace. Call Me Midnight’s late rally never pulled him within range of the leaders, and he finished sixth.

Pace wasn’t an excuse. Splits in the race set by Zozos of :23.27, :47.35, and 1:11.69 were legitimate, and in contrast to his Risen Star win, Epicenter wasn’t cruising by himself early.

Though he broke well, Rosario allowed his mount to settle when Zozos and Pioneer of Medina were hustled leaving the starting gate. He rated Epicenter just behind them while his mount traveled comfortably.

Cut loose entering the stretch, Epicenter quickly swallowed up the leaders, quickly taking command. Initially under a hand ride, Rosario went to left-handed encouragement when Epicenter drifted toward the inside rail in the final furlong.

“He took a little dirt today and he didn’t mind it,” Rosario said. “I shifted him out and he did the rest. Not only is he a nice horse, but he also tries very hard. He was off the pace today and inside of horses. It seems like he can be special. The way he did it today, the mile and a quarter (of the Derby) shouldn’t be a problem. We will see what happens.”

His late drift notwithstanding, the winner’s performance was near flawless. By more than three-fifths of a second, his time bettered Hot Rod Charlie’s prior record time of 1:55.06 over the infrequently contested 1 3/16-mile distance.

Epicenter became a millionaire with Saturday’s victory. He is 4-1-0 in six starts with earnings of $1,010,639.

“I feel that he’s made some great progress over the winter. He’s done so good over the surface here at the Fair Grounds this winter and (in) his physical development,” Asmussen said. “Just love the opportunity of the series, the 3-year-old series here at the Fair Grounds. He’s got a mile and an eighth in him, frontrunning win, and then today, a little bit off the pace going a mile and three-sixteenths in a very solid time. It gives us just a tremendous amount of confidence in going into the Kentucky Derby.” -Byron King

Echo Zulu Holds Off Hidden Connection in Fair Grounds Oaks Thriller

Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen has trained some of the greatest racehorses of the last two decades but was left in utter admiration of the undefeated Echo Zulu following her brave victory in the $400,000 Grade 2 Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks March 26 at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots. 

“She’s a worthy champion. And just a blessing to be around,” said Asmussen. “I’m emotional because of how wonderful it is to be a part of it. Everything she did for us last year. She left the gates, stuck her ears up and when they came to her she ran. She’s a racehorse.”

Virtually unchallenged in all four of her prior starts, the daughter of Gun Runner showed heart on the track Saturday— digging deep to repel a bold late bid from Hidden Connection in the final strides of the Fair Grounds Oaks. She prevailed by a nose, keeping her flawless record intact and launching to the top of the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard with 130 points.

Appearing fresh, dancing on her toes in the saddling paddock in her first appearance since the Grade 1 NetJets Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, Echo Zulu had her trainer admittedly nervous before her long-awaited 3-year-old debut. The pressure was further mounted on the connections of the star filly as the public bet her down as the 1-9 favorite despite facing two formidable rivals in Hidden Connection and Turnerloose.

“(Echo Zulu) needs to relax today,” Asmussen told TVG in an interview as the field of six entered the track. “She needs to conserve her energy, there’s plenty of pace to go with her. She’s not going to sneak up on anybody; they all know who she is.”

Echo Zulu sprang from the gates like she hadn’t missed a beat, rolling to the front under regular pilot Joel Rosario. Turnerloose, the gallant winner of the Feb. 19 Grade 2 Rachel Alexandra Stakes presented by Fasig-Tipton, raced just behind the champion with Hidden Connection and Favor jostling for third and fourth position down the backstretch. The L & N Racing and Winchell Thoroughbreds’ colorbearer set a sprightly pace of :23.79 and :47.68, ears pricked as she cruised into the final turn for home. Around the bend, jockey Reylu Gutierrez angled Hidden Connection three-wide into the lane, and after putting away Favor and Turnerloose, she charged relentlessly after Echo Zulu, who held a length margin over her foes midway down the stretch.

Rosario went to work on the tiring Echo Zulu inside the eighth pole, as no doubt the effects of the four-month layoff began to creep up late on the filly as she fought to maintain her advantage over the oncoming Hidden Connection. Responding with everything she had, Echo Zulu inched out Hidden Connection, stopping the timer in 1:42.69 for 1 1/16-miles on a fast track. The final time was only three ticks off Olympiad’s track record (1:42.01) set in winning the Grade 3 Mineshaft Stakes earlier in the meet. -Molly Rollins