Asmussen reflects on meaning of G1 Runhappy Travers triumph with Epicenter
by NYRA Press Office
· Asmussen reflects on meaning of G1 Runhappy Travers triumph with Epicenter
· Jack Christopher earns 104 Beyer for G1 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial victory; Breeders’ Cup is next objective
· G1 Personal Ensign winner Malathaat may target G1 Spinster
· Gufo defends G1 Sword Dancer title, Soldier Rising now multiple G1-placed
· Cody's Wish earns 112BSF in G1 Forego upset
· Cyberknife ‘fantastic’ out of G1 Travers; Mo Strike works for G1 Hopeful
When Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen started his first horse, Track Ambassador, at Ruidoso Downs in 1986, he did so with storied racetracks like Saratoga Race Course in the back of his mind as places of legend, hoping to one day make it to the Spa to leave his mark at the nation’s oldest sporting venue. 36 years later, his impact at Saratoga has been monumental, adding to his long list of accomplishments with a 5 1/4-length triumph in Saturday’s 10-furlong Grade 1 Runhappy Travers by Epicenter to earn his first win in America’s oldest race for sophomores.
Asmussen said he celebrated the milestone with his wife and children last night, taking the evening to reflect on the importance of a Travers victory.
“Me and Julie and the boys went and had a nice dinner last night,” Asmussen said. “For me to share it with family is that much more special.”
The Travers win adds to an unparalleled Hall of Fame ledger for Asmussen, whose more than 48,000 starts includes several record-setting moments at Saratoga. In 2009, he conditioned Hall of Fame filly Rachel Alexandra to become the first female horse to win the Grade 1 Woodward, just one year after watching fellow Hall of Fame trainee Curlin claim victory in the same event. Last August, an emotional Asmussen watched Stellar Tap cross the finish line 5 1/4-lengths the best in a maiden special weight to provide him with his 9,445th lifetime win, becoming the all-time leading trainer by wins in North American racing history.
Most recently, the Asmussen-trained Jackie’s Warrior became the first horse in Saratoga history to win a Grade 1 race for three consecutive years when he scored an easy win in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt on July 30.
Asmussen said the Travers, which was his 300th lifetime graded stakes triumph, is among the most gratifying races he has won.
“To realize in your life’s work that you’re able to compete with success at this level, and coming from a racing family, [you’re] always aware of what Saratoga and the Travers are, so to get that done is a tremendous feeling,” Asmussen said.
Epicenter, who was sent to post as the even-money favorite in a competitive field of eight, stalked in fourth under a patient Joel Rosario through the first three-quarters of the 1 1/4-mile test before unleashing a powerful run in the final turn to easily draw away from pacesetter Cyberknife. Epicenter’s final time of 2:00.72 was the fastest Travers since Arrogate’s track record-setting performance in 2016 [1:59.36].
“He’s doing beautifully. He’s very proud of himself,” Asmussen said. “The race went beautifully and it was everything we hoped for. We’re very proud of his win and excited about who he is.”
The Travers was the fourth graded coup of the year for the son of Not This Time, adding to three Grade 2 scores in the Jim Dandy on July 30 at the Spa and the Louisiana Derby and Risen Star at Fair Grounds Race Course this winter. Asmussen expressed frustration in the Triple Crown as Epicenter finished a valiant second in both the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby and Grade 1 Preakness. Both efforts were laced with bad luck, losing the “Run for the Roses” after a wicked pace setup and coming up shy in the Preakness when squeezed at the start and unable to find racing room throughout.
Asmussen said seeing Epicenter finally attain his well-deserved Grade 1 win, especially in the Travers, is satisfying.
“We wanted it for him and for his fans,” said Asmussen. “We got so many congratulations and the respect for him – you enjoy that so much. To win the Travers here at Saratoga with the fans that are here is an extremely proud thing for us.”
Epicenter has always shown ability, graduating at second asking in November at Churchill Downs before impressing in his stakes debut with a 6 1/2-length score in the Gun Runner in December at Fair Grounds. Asmussen said Epicenter continues to improve with every race.
“Incrementally. That’s the best way to describe it,” Asmussen said of his progression. “There’s a lot of talk about how good he is and how much talent he has, and our expectations going into the Classics [were high]. For him to compete hard and still move forward at this stage is an incredible feeling. But he gets all the credit. He’s done all the work and he’s got the ability, constitution and mental makeup to be able to do that.”
Winning the Travers with any horse is special, but Asmussen said doing so with a horse owned by longtime clients Winchell Thoroughbreds makes it even more meaningful. Winchell Thoroughbreds, operated by Joan Winchell and her son, Ron, teamed up with Asmussen to come close to winning the Travers with subsequent 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner in 2016 [3rd] and with Midnight Bourbon [2nd] last year.
“We talked about it a little last night with Ron and David Fiske, their racing manager, and we’ve been so fortunate, but this is a new level,” said Asmussen. “Ron’s plan and consistency has put us in this position. I always thought it’s so amazing that what a horse does can make you feel that about yourself.”
Now the clear leader of his division, Epicenter will turn his attention to the Grade 1, $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic to face older horses on November 5 at Keeneland. Whether he will race again before the 1 1/4-mile engagement is still to be determined.
“We’ll discuss it,” said Asmussen. “It all depends on how he’s training. We’re very confident to train him up to the Classic with how well he ran sharp in the Jim Dandy when fresh.”
Asmussen added that there has never been a doubt in his mind that Epicenter is the best 3-year-old colt in America.
“He always was for me,” Asmussen said, with a smile.
On Saturday, Asmussen also sent out Jackie’s Warrior and Grade 1-winner Gunite to respective Grade 1 placings in the $600,000 Forego and $500,000 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial.
Reigning Champion Male Sprinter Jackie’s Warrior suffered his first loss at Saratoga after he entered with a perfect 5-for-5 record that included his last-out Vanderbilt victory, the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial last year and the Grade 1 Hopeful in 2020. In the Forego, Jackie’s Warrior went to the lead, but was pressed by Pipeline throughout. Jackie’s Warrior held to his lead to the sixteenth pole, but was caught by Cody’s Wish in the final strides before the wire.
Asmussen gave credit to the talented Cody’s Wish and said the 11-time graded stakes-winning Jackie’s Warrior was simply second-best yesterday.
“He came out of the race in excellent shape. Never defeated, just second-place,” Asmussen said, with a laugh. “He is an unbelievable horse to be around. You have no control over how the other guy runs and Cody’s Wish ran a phenomenal race.”
Jackie’s Warrior is still on target for the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint on November 5 at Keeneland for his final start before retiring to stud at Spendthrift Farm.
As for Gunite, Asmussen expressed his joy in seeing the Winchell Thoroughbreds-owned son of Gun Runner post another good effort in Grade 1 company at Saratoga after dominating the Hopeful last September. Gunite finished a rallying second, 1 1/4 lengths behind the victorious Jack Christopher in yesterday’s seven-furlong Allen Jerkens.
“We’re so proud of him,” said Asmussen. “He’s such a tough horse. I don’t know what’s next, we still have to decide. All of our conversations last night were about Epicenter.”
Two-time Grade 1-winning mare Clairiere was expected to give reigning Champion 3-Year-Old Filly Malathaat another strong battle in their seventh lifetime meeting in the Grade 1, $600,000 Personal Ensign, but finished last-of-5 behind her familiar rival after trailing far behind the field throughout the nine furlongs and never threatening.
Asmussen said the daughter of Curlin had an obvious excuse for the non-performance after she was unsettled in the starting gate.
“Clairiere had a significant cut on her tongue that we’re going to doctor,” Asmussen said. “We’ll get that healed up and resume training. I don’t imagine [the cut] helped.”
Jack Christopher earns 104 Beyer for G1 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial victory; Breeders’ Cup is next objective
After getting back in the win column in Saturday’s Grade 1, $500,000 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial at Saratoga Race Course, Jim Bakke, Gerald Isbister, Peter Brant and Coolmore Stud’s Jack Christopher now has dead aim on the Breeders’ Cup on November 5 at Keeneland Race Course. But which Breeders’ Cup race the son of Munnings will contest is still unknown.
Trained by Chad Brown, the three-time Grade 1-winner utilized his typical stalking tactics down the backstretch, sitting just off pacesetter Conagher and taking command at the top of the stretch to win by 1 1/4 lengths under Jose Ortiz. The victory garnered a 104 Beyer Speed Figure, and came following a third-place finish in his two-turn debut in the Grade 1 Haskell Invitational on July 23 at Monmouth Park.
“It was great to see him bounce out of the Haskell and get another Grade 1 win, he’s just a remarkable horse,” Brown said.
Bradley Weisbord, racing manager for the ownership group, said a decision regarding the Breeders’ Cup will be left up to Brown. He will either contest the six-furlong Grade 1, $2 million Sprint or the two-turn Grade 1, $1 million Dirt Mile.
“I’m grateful that Jim Bakke and Gerald Isbister and his family were here. They flew in from Wisconsin and it’s great when the owners show up,” Weisbord said. “Hopefully we keep on track for the Breeders’ Cup. It’s up to Chad whether he runs once before the Breeders’ Cup, but the Breeders’ Cup will be the goal.”
Weisbord credited bloodstock agent Liz Crow for picking out the talented chestnut at the 2020 Fasig-Tipton Kentucky Sale, where he was bought for $135,000 from the Paramount Sales consignment.
“She leads our team there and always does a great job at the sale year after year,” Weisbord said. “She continues to find horses like Jack and we’re thankful that she’s on our team.”
Brown went on to speak of Jeff Drown’s Zandon, who kept his perfect in-the-money record intact when an even third to Epicenter in the Grade 1 Runhappy Travers. The son of Upstart was sixth down the backstretch and was called on by Flavien Prat in upper stretch. He made an inside rally in the stretch drive and battled for place honors in between respective second and fourth-place finishers Cyberknife and Rich Strike.
“He ran a good race. He made up quite a bit of ground on Cyberknife and nearly got him for second,” Brown said. “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.”
Boasting a record of 7-2-2-3 and earnings in excess of $1.25 million, Zandon was third in the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby following a victory in the Grade 1 Blue Grass at Keeneland.
Brown also saddled stakes-winner Artorius and Grade 1 Preakness winner Early Voting to a respective seventh and eighth in the Travers. Artorius launched a bid around the far turn but flattened out in the stretch, while Early Voting was third down the backstretch and threw in the towel around the far turn, finishing last-of-8 and beaten 63 3/4 lengths.
“We’re still evaluating them. No major issues,” Brown said.
Brown also saddled Klaravich Stables’ Technical Analysis to a victory in the Grade 2 Ballston Spa, the first of six graded stakes races on Saturday’s blockbuster program. The 4-year-old Irish-bred daughter of Kingman secured her third graded stakes win at the Spa following wins in last year’s Grade 3 Lake George and Grade 2 Lake Placid. She arrived at the Ballston Spa off a runner-up to sable mate In Italian in the Grade 1 Diana on July 16 at Saratoga.
“She definitely loves Saratoga. She ran super,” Brown said.
Brown mentioned the Grade 1, $750,000 First Lady on October 8 at Keeneland as a possible next start for Technical Analysis.
G1 Personal Ensign winner Malathaat may target G1 Spinster
Shadwell Stable’s champion Malathaat was doing well the morning after ending the first losing streak of her career with a dramatic come-from-behind victory in Saturday’s Grade 1, $600,000 Personal Ensign at Saratoga.
Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher was pleased with how the 4-year-old daughter of two-time Horse of the Year and 2014 Hall of Famer Curlin emerged from her fourth career Grade 1 triumph exiting back-to-back losses for the first time.
“She looked great this morning,” Pletcher said. “We’re very proud of her effort. It was a good bounce-back race. She had been training like she was going to run well. We’re delighted with the way she did it and happy with the way she came out of it.”
The Personal Ensign’s field of five, all millionaires, had combined to win 45 races, 13 Grade 1 races and $9.286 million in purse earnings, and featured another Eclipse Award winner in Letruska, the Champion Older Mare of 2021.
Malathaat was sent off as the fourth choice in the wagering behind 8-5 favorite Clairiere, who beat Malathaat in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps and Grade 2 Shuvee, the latter July 24 at Saratoga, heading into the Personal Ensign.
“We had a lot of confidence in her, we always have,” Pletcher said. “It was great to see her run to her capabilities. It was a star-studded race, for sure, and to be able to beat those kinds of fillies was very exciting.”
Pletcher said Malathaat may use the Grade 1 Spinster October 9 as a prep on the way to the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Distaff November 5, both at Keeneland. Last year, Malathaat did not race between her victory in the Grade 1 Alabama at the Spa and a third-place finish by a half-length in the Distaff.
“She’s had success at Keeneland before so I think that’s probably where we’ll end up in the Spinster,” Pletcher said. “Last year, we kind of trained up to the Breeders’ Cup from the Alabama [but] I think she might benefit from a start this year.”
Waterford Stable’s Winters Back breezed five furlongs in 1:00.91 over the Oklahoma turf course Sunday ahead of a possible return to the races in the Grade 2, $200,000 Bernard Baruch September 5 at Saratoga.
It was the 10th work at Saratoga and fifth on the grass since June 2 for Winters Back, whose time was the fastest of 12 horses at the distance.
Winters Back has not run since finishing seventh in the Grade 1 United Nations last July. The 5-year-old son of Summer Front is seeking his first stakes victory, having been second in the Grade 3 Monmouth and fourth in the Grade 3 Canadian Turf in 2021, beat 1 1/2 lengths each time.
“He’s under consideration for the Bernard Baruch,” Pletcher said. “He hasn’t run in a while, so we’ll see how the field is shaping up.”
Gufo defends G1 Sword Dancer title, Soldier Rising now multiple G1-placed
Otter Bend Stables’ Gufo surged home under jockey Joel Rosario to successfully defend his title in Saturday’s Grade 1, $750,000 Resorts World Casino Sword Dancer Invitational, at Saratoga Race Course.
The son of Declaration of War has won a Grade 1 at the age of 3 [Belmont Derby], 4 [Sword Dancer] and now 5 [Sword Dancer], and has successfully visited the winner’s circle at least once each year dating back to his juvenile season in 2019.
Trainer Christophe Clement had nothing but praise for the hard knocking horse.
“He’s doing very well this morning,” said Clement. “I was thrilled with the performance. It was a great ride from Joel and he’s a very good horse. Top class.”
The win earned Gufo an automatic spot in the starting gate for the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf November 5 at Keeneland. Last year, Gufo used the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont Park as a final tune-up for the Breeders’ Cup.
Clement was non-committal on where or when Gufo would run next leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, but hinted that another run in the Grade 1 $500,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic October 8 at the Belmont at the Big A fall meet is logical.
“No decisions have been made,” said Clement. “At the moment we’re just enjoying the win. The race in New York makes a lot of sense but we need to think about it.”
The win matched a career high 104 Beyer Speed Figure, which is the same figure Gufo received in last year’s Sword Dancer victory.
Gufo has now banked just shy of $2 million in earnings and is 9-3-5 in 19 career starts.
Madaket Stables, Michael Dubb, Morris Bailey, Wonder Stables and Michael J. Caruso’s Soldier Rising picked up a Grade 1 placing for the second time in his career and the first of this campaign when he rallied to finish third in the Sword Dancer behind stablemate Gufo and Mira Mission.
Even though Soldier Rising has never won a stakes race, he has proven to be extremely competitive against the best in the world. As a sophomore, he competed in two-thirds of the Turf Triple series, finishing second to State of Rest in the Grade 1 Saratoga Derby at the Spa and second to Yibir in the Jockey Club Derby downstate at Belmont. State of Rest has since added three Group 1 wins to his resume and Yibir went on to win the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Del Mar and was crowned Champion Turf horse.
“He got beat by two very good horses last year. His form has been very, very solid,” Clement said. “As a 4-year-old we’re going one step at a time. I thought he went extremely well yesterday and I was thrilled with the performance. It’s too quick to know where we are going [next]. I’m not surprised. A lot of people were surprised. I’ve always thought he was a top-class horse. I just had to bring him along one step at a time.”
The third-place finish earned Soldier Rising a career-high 103 Beyer Speed Figure, which is also the first time he earned a triple digit score.
Only finishing off the board once in 13 career starts between North America and France, the gelded son of Frankel boasts a record of 4-5-3 and nearly $700,000 in earnings.
Cody's Wish earns 112BSF in G1 Forego upset
Godolphin's Kentucky homebred Cody's Wish garnered a career-best 112 Beyer Speed Figure for his 1 1/4-length score in Saturday's seven-furlong Grade 1, $600,000 Forego for older horses at Saratoga Race Course.
Trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott and piloted by Junior Alvarado, Cody's Wish settled in sixth position as reigning Champion Sprinter Jackie's Warrior dueled with Pipeline through splits of 22.75 seconds and 45.10 before rallying wide down the lane to overtake his rivals and notch a 1 1/4-length score in a final time of 1:20.95, just .55 seconds off the track record. Fellow Mott-trainee Baby Yoda finished fourth for his first defeat at the Spa in four starts.
Cody's Wish is named for teenager Cody Dorman, who suffers from the genetic disorder Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome. Dorman met Cody's Wish as a foal during a farm tour via the Make A Wish program and developed a special bond with the then four-month old horse, inspiring the eventual name.
A six-time winner from 10 starts, Cody's Wish entered the Forego from a neck score in the Hanshin on July 4 at Churchill Downs with Alvarado in the irons.
'I'm very aware [about the backstory] and it makes it even more special," Alvarado said. "Last time in Kentucky I got to meet Cody in person and you wouldn't believe the way this horse acted towards him. It's an unbelievable bond they have together and it gives me even more confidence to ride a horse like that because the horse is extra smart and knows what he's doing."
The victory was part of a solid stakes weekend for Mott, who sent out Art Collector for a successful title defense in the Grade 2 Charles Town Classic and Frank's Rockette to a six-length romp in the Pink Ribbon on Friday evening at the West Virginia track.
Godolphin's Speaker's Corner set the pace under Hall of Famer Mike Smith en route to a fourth-place finish in the Grade 2 Pat O'Brien on Saturday at Del Mar, finishing 5 3/4-lengths back of the victorious Laurel River.
Mott's other Spa stakes starters Saturday included Channel Maker [10th, Grade 1 Resorts World Casino Sword Dancer] and Gilded Age [5th, Grade 1 Runhappy Travers].
Cyberknife ‘fantastic’ out of G1 Travers; Mo Strike works for G1 Hopeful
Brad Cox didn’t win the Eclipse Award as North America’s leading trainer the past two years by settling for second, but he couldn’t have been more pleased with multiple Grade 1 winner Cyberknife’s runner-up effort in Saturday’s Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers.
Cyberknife set a demanding pace for six furlongs in the 1 1/4-mile Travers before being overtaken by eventual winner and race favorite Epicenter leaving the far turn, then dug in and fended off both Zandon and Grade 1 Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike the length of the stretch to hold second by a nose.
“It was a super race. We don’t run second very often and we’re content, but I was fairly content with his performance,” Cox said. “There could be some what-ifs, but he had the one-hole. There was no one looking for the lead, and I thought [jockey] Florent [Geroux] gave him every opportunity to win. The winner sat right behind us on the rail and kind of got the same trip as us. I watch a lot of races and I could tell at the quarter pole we were in for a battle, and he fought on very, very well.
“I’m very proud of him,” he added. “He’s come a long, long way in a year. He was up here training last year and we didn’t know where he was going to end up or what kind of horse he was going to be. [Owner] Al Gold has been patient with him. It wasn’t the result we were looking for, but we cannot be disappointed in his effort. He fought very hard.”
Cox was pleased with the way Cyberknife exited the Travers, and he and Gold have begun discussions about what the plan is for the rest of the year including the Breeders’ Cup in November at Keeneland.
“He came out of it very good and looked fantastic this morning. I’m very happy with the way he looked,” Cox said. “Al Gold and I talked about it this morning. We may look at the Dirt Mile and the Breeders’ Cup Classic, as well. If we have a race in between, I don’t know what race it would be, if we feel like we need one.
“He’s been non-stop. He hasn’t missed any training at all since we’ve started with him,” he added. “We don’t feel like we have to have a race. We’ll kind of see how things play out over the next couple weeks and we ship him back to Kentucky in probably a week or so.”
Cox unveiled Jonathan Poulin, Westerberg, Mrs. John Magnier, Derrick Smith and Michael Tabor’s Verifying to kick off the 13-race Travers Day program, and the expensive son of 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify did not disappoint with a front-running 1 3/4-length triumph as the 3-5 favorite. The victory earned an 85 Beyer.
Out of the Repent mare Diva Delite, Verifying is a half-brother to Midnight Bisou, the 2019 Champion Older Mare who was retired in 2020 after winning 13 of 22 career starts and more than $7.4 million in purse earnings. Among her five Grade 1 wins was the 2019 Personal Ensign at Saratoga. Verifying fetched $775,000 as a yearling at Keeneland last September.
“He’s a good colt,” Cox said. “He looks the part. He was an expensive yearling, and he had been training the part. I guess the word was out. He was 3-5 and he performed like it. I think he’s going to stretch out. Ultimately that’s what we want him to do. He’s another one that will ship back to Kentucky in a week or so and we’ll start preparing him for possibly a stake race.
“You don’t bring them to Saratoga unless you like them. He gave us enough confidence back at Keeneland late spring and early summer to put him on a van and bring him up here,” he added. “He had put together a good string of works, worked weekly, and a couple of gate works, one on the main and one on the Oklahoma, and we felt like he was tight enough to make his first start and he performed well.”
Among the horses Cox worked Sunday was Nasser Bin Omairah’s Mo Strike, winner of the Grade 2 Sanford July 16 at Saratoga that is being pointed to the Grade 1, $300,000 Hopeful September 5 at the Spa. The undefeated son of champion Uncle Mo went five furlongs in 1:00.22 over the main track, ranking third of 25 horses.
Purchased for $325,000 out of the OBS Spring Sale of 2-Year-Olds in Training in April, Mo Strike debuted with a three-quarter-length victory June 19 at Churchill Downs, running 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:04.77. He won the six-furlong Sanford by 3 1/2 lengths at odds of 8-1 in 1:11.35 under Florent Geroux, who will ride back in the seven-furlong Hopeful.
“He’s good. He won the Sanford and he’s had plenty of time to recover from that. He’s had a good string of works here on the main track and I love what I see from him, physically and mentally,” Cox said. “He’s a very sharp horse. He’s 2-for-2. He’ll have to take a step forward, but I think he has taken a step forward from what I’ve seen from him physically. His breeze this morning was very good.
“He's gotten it pretty much from the get-go, when we’ve asked him in his training,” he added. “He came out of a 2-year-old sale and they did a good job prepping him. Sometimes when these horses come out of the 2-year-old sales they’re a little over the top mentally, won’t relax or settle and do what you want or ask of them. He has. He’s all there in the mental part of it. Sometimes when you wind these horses up, you can’t unwind them. He’s been a horse that does everything very professionally.”