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Horse Racing

Preakness 2022: Epicenter always gives trainer Steve Asmussen ‘more of the same.’ That’s why he’s the clear favorite.

In a sport where the slightest misstep can erase million-dollar dreams, predictability is good. Better, sometimes, than brilliant speed.

Two-time Preakness-winning trainer Steve Asmussen chuckled Thursday morning when asked how Epicenter, the morning-line favorite for this year’s second jewel of the Triple Crown, was doing. The answer is always the same.

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“That’s the thing about Epicenter,” Asmussen said. “What’d you see? More of the same. He’s been beautifully consistent in his training.”

Epicenter’s steadiness carried him through two commanding wins in Kentucky Derby prep races and through weeks of flawless training in the run-up to the first jewel of the Triple Crown. It made him the favorite in the Derby, where he was poised to win again until 80-1 long shot Rich Strike burst from out of the picture to snatch the race by 3/4 of a length. It’s the reason he’s a 6-5 favorite in the morning line for the Preakness after Rich Strike’s owner, Rick Dawson, pulled the Derby winner from the field.

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Epicenter’s calm was on display Thursday when Asmussen took him to the paddock at Pimlico Race Course to gain familiarity with the space where he will be saddled for the Preakness. Like a bad airline seatmate, the horse beside him reared up in a fuss. Epicenter stood placidly, declining even to glance at his unruly neighbor.

“He’s got the physical and the mental,” Asmussen’s assistant, Scott Blasi, said. “Which is what usually makes a great horse.”

Asmussen had hoped for a chance to assert that greatness by turning the tables on Rich Strike in the Preakness.

“Honestly, there was a little bit of disappointment,” he said. “I wanted another shot at it. That might just be me being ignorant, but you’re here to compete. I’m sure they’ll meet up again down the road, hopefully.”

Even with the Derby winner biding his time in Kentucky, there are a few formidable contenders that could spoil Epicenter’s Preakness.

D. Wayne Lukas, 86, will try to win the race for a seventh time with his Kentucky Oaks champion filly Secret Oath.

Trainer Chad Brown and owner Seth Klarman will shoot for it with the same formula that worked in 2017, taking on the Derby holdover with a fresh horse in Early Voting.

Simplification will try to improve on his fourth-place finish in the Derby, with trainer Antonio Sano convinced he can do it if he avoids the wide trip that doomed him in Kentucky.

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Trainer Kenny McPeek believed enough in Creative Minister’s ascending form that he and owners Greg Back and Paul Fireman agreed to pay an extra $150,000 just to get their horse in the Preakness after they did not initially nominate him for the Triple Crown series.

All week, however, talk around the Preakness barn suggested Epicenter would have to take a step back to open the door for these challengers. Though he did not arrive at Pimlico with the pomp and circumstance of a Derby winner, rival trainers spoke about him as if he was just that. He would have been a clear favorite, they said, even if Rich Strike showed up.

“He’s definitely the horse to beat in this race,” Lukas said. “He caught a suicidal pace in the Derby, and he won’t let that happen again, I don’t think.”

“You’ve got to hope that he regresses a little bit,” said McPeek, who won the 2020 Preakness with Swiss Skydiver. “My hope is that he’s wilted a little bit; these campaigns take a lot out of a horse. But he ran a big race in the Derby and yeah, we probably need him to regress a little bit, and we need to move up a little bit.”

Asmussen and Blasi said they’re done reviewing the Derby in their minds. Despite the furious early pace, jockey Joel Rosario had Epicenter in position to win in the mid-stretch. Rich Strike simply caught him with a historic charge.

“How the race set up, we kind of had to move a little early, but he did really well,” said Rosario, the nation’s top-earning jockey in 2021. “Turning for home, it looked like we were going to win the race until that horse came in the last 50 yards and just blew by us. But he ran a great race. He did everything I asked him to do.”

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When Epicenter came out of the race fit as ever, Asmussen felt no reservations about taking him to the Preakness. Of the trainer’s North American-record 9,754 career wins, two of the most memorable came in the second leg of the Triple Crown.

Asmussen was convinced he would win the 2007 Kentucky Derby with Curlin. When that did not happen, he brought the colt to Baltimore for a rematch with Street Sense. The nation’s two best 3-year-olds produced a thrilling finish to a fast Preakness.

“It was such a great race that day,” recalled Asmussen, who had yet to win a Triple Crown race at that point. “The photo finish and then the moment when they put [Curlin’s] name up … you thought he’d won when they went under the wire, but until they put the numbers up, we’ve all been mistaken. But that was an extremely special moment.”

Two years later, Asmussen arrived with rock star filly Rachel Alexandra, who had just come under his care after winning the Kentucky Oaks by 20 1/4 lengths. With the crowd firmly on her side, she held off unlikely Derby winner Mine That Bird to become the first female Preakness winner since 1924.

“It’s separate from everything else,” Asmussen said of his experience with the Hall of Fame filly. “I’ve been involved with great horses, but the experience with Rachel was, when you walked out of the barn, you’ve never felt that percentage of people truly, honestly rooting for one horse. We were along for the ride.”

So, as much agony as Asmussen has experienced in the Derby, where he’s 0-for-24, he has every reason to be comfortable at Pimlico.

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His one concern going into Saturday was the forecast, with the National Weather Service forecasting a high temperature of 95 degrees.

“I’m as concerned as you can be, if you’ve never dealt with it or performed under it being that warm,” Asmussen said. “I think the variable we’re not sure of is if it is actually 95, 96 degrees here, and we know it can get pretty sticky here in Baltimore. All of them are going to have to deal with that, but he’s a big horse turning back in 14 days.”

Will Epicenter prove as unruffled by the elements as by every other factor? He has not given his human connections any reason to doubt him.

147th Preakness Stakes

Pimlico Race Course

Saturday, approx. 7:01 p.m.

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TV: Chs. 11, 4 (coverage begins at 4 p.m)

THE FIELD

Post position; horse; odds

1. Simplification (6-1)

2. Creative Minister (10-1)

3. Fenwick (50-1)

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4. Secret Oath (9-2)

5. Early Voting (7-2)

6. Happy Jack (30-1)

7. Armagnac (12-1)

8. Epicenter (6-5)

9. Skippylongstocking (20-1)


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