by Jeff Siegel
March 29, 2022
1 - Now, that’s what we wanted to see.
In what served as his final springboard to the Spring Classics and showing a dimension we weren’t sure he had, Epicenter abandoned his usual front-running style in the Louisiana Derby-G1, instead employing stalk-and-pounce tactics that produced a powerful and authoritative performance. At least until next week, he is the clear leader in the 2022 sophomore division.
There was so much to embrace about his two and one-half length victory at Fair Grounds that it surely will take something close to exceptional by Messier, Smile Happy, or any of the other highly-rated colts in their upcoming final Kentucky Derby prep races to supplant him as the post time favorite in the first jewel of the Triple Crown, the Kentucky Derby-G1, May 7.
Whether or not it was by design or necessity, Epicenter and jockey Joel Rosario found themselves settling in the third position behind Zozos and Pioneer of Medina entering the clubhouse turn. But instead of displaying even a modest desire to pull or become rank, Epicenter switched off like an old pro while just galloping along and waiting to be given his cue. In doing so, he proved to skeptics that he was anything but a need-the-lead type.
Furthermore, the Steve Asmusssen-trained colt exhibited an exceptional turn of foot to quickly gain command as the field entered the stretch and then won being geared down while earning a career-top 102 Beyer, the sixth time in as many starts that he was assigned a speed figure that exceeded his previous race while also removing any doubt that the Derby’s classic 12-furlong distance might not be within his range.
He is fast, he is handy, he can quicken on a dime, and he will benefit from a proper four-race winter campaign that should enable yet another forward move on the first Saturday in May. Before his performance in New Orleans, we liked this colt, but with reservations. Now, there are no concerns. Epicenter is exceptional.
2 - Considerable praise has been heaped upon Echo Zulu by the racing media for her extremely game victory in the Fair Grounds Oaks-G2 in her first outing as a 3-year-old and her first since completing a perfect (in four starts) campaign in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies-G2 last fall at Del Mar.
No question she was brave in victory, but her Beyer speed figure of 88 was the lowest in her career despite her being gifted an easy front-running trip through modest fractions that should have made the race the easiest in her career. Instead, at 10 cents on the dollar, the Steve Asmussen-trained filly had to reach back for every ounce of her reserve energy to hold off Hidden Connection, herself a stakes winner at two but a distant fourth behind Echo Zulu on Breeders’ Cup day and then a fading fourth in her 3-year-old debut in the Rachel Alexandra S.-G2 last month.
We’ll find out in her next start, the Kentucky Oaks-G1 May 6, whether Echo Zulu, as her trainer inferred, was merely “short” off the nearly five month layoff last Saturday, or whether she, like many precocious stakes winning juvenile fillies, will fail to develop and improve at age three. As a daughter of Gun Runner, one would be surprised if she didn’t, but she is suddenly no slam dunk to dominate her division again this year like many assumed she would.
In fact, we can think of at least two fillies among the sophomore filly ranks that we think may have surpassed here, and they are the Arkansas Derby-bound (and our pick to win) Secret Oath, and the California-based Uncle Mo filly Adare Manor, the winner of her last two Santa Anita outings by a combined 25 lengths before being transferred from the Bob Baffert barn to his former assistant from many years ago, Tim Yakteen,
3 - WinStar Farm’s CEO, Racing Manager, and President Elliot Walden put on a happy face in post-race interviews following Country Grammer’s upset victory in the $12 million Dubai World Cup-G1, pretending to be pleased even though the stable’s other starter, the odds-on favorite and far more valuable Life Is Good hit a wall with a furlong to go and turned what appeared to be a sure victory into a highly-deflating fourth place finish.
No doubt, Country Grammer is a good horse, having now amassed $10,837,329 in earnings by virtue of his victory on Saturday and his runner-up effort in the Saudi World Cup-G1 four weeks earlier. He also won the far-less-valuable Hollywood Gold Cup-G1 last summer for trainer Bob Baffert at Santa Anita before missing the remainder of the year, and it’s to Baffert’s credit (with plenty of help from assistant Jimmy Barnes) that the five-old son of Tonalist has returned better than he left.
But Life Is Good, a son of Into Mischief and beaten just once in seven prior starts, holds far more value to the operation not only as a race horse but more importantly as a stallion prospect, and a victory in Dubai could have been worth more in potential long term breeding fees than whatever good will Country Grammer might have achieved.
Without in any way devaluing the victory by his second stringer, Walden correctly pointed out that the deep and tiring racetrack – a surface that trainer Todd Pletcher feared might compromise Life Is Good – certainly impacted the favorite’s chance to stay the mile and one-quarter trip. With a final time of 2:04.97, Saturday’s renewal was the slowest in its 26-year history, further illustrating the looseness of the track.
The two WinStar runners should meet again this year, at least on Breeders’ Cup day if not sooner. Life Is Good will have his chance to turn the tables, and probably will, but he’ll never have a better or easier chance to win a $12 million race.
4 - It may be the among the least prestigious divisions in thoroughbred racing, but we think we saw a future star 3-year-old turf sprinter on Saturday at Gulfstream Park when the lightly-raced Big Invasion toyed with Wesley Ward’s stakes-winning Lucci in the listed Texas Glitter Stakes over five furlongs.
In a five furlong dash hand-timed in :56 flat that was assigned a graded-stakes level Beyer speed figure of 96, the Christophe Clement-trained colt stalked the leader in hand outside, then disposed of his chief rival without even as much as a shrug entering the head of the lane and proceeded to lengthen at will, hitting the wire three lengths clear while looking every bit like a colt who could handle much tougher competition.
What’s most exciting is that this colt by Declaration of War from a stakes-placed producing Curlin mare should be even more effective routing than sprinting, so Clement will have no concerns when stretching him out. Second in his debut in January and then a sharp maiden five-eighths winner by more than four lengths the following month, Big Invasion was crushed on the tote (4/5) in the Texas Glitter and looked like the winner every step of the way. Even though there are still plenty of lucrative dirt races this spring and summer for 3-year-olds, we suspect Clement will resist the temptation to try him on the main track and keep the colt on grass for the time being, with a race such as the 8.5 furlong $500,000 American Turf on Derby Day at Churchill Downs an intriguing option should the barn decide to get a bit creative.
5 - With Messier having been transferred from Bob Baffert’s barn to trainer Tim Yakteen, he will be eligible to earn the required Kentucky Derby points in his next start, the Santa Anita Derby-G1, on April 9. We always assumed common sense would prevail, which is why we included the son of Empire Maker in every one of our Triple Crown rankings since we began listing them two months ago.
These newly updated rankings (as of March 29) are based on potential and projection, not resume.
The Main Players:
1 – Epicenter (S. Asmussen) – Squashed what proved to be unfounded concerns about his ability to win without a front-running trip in the Louisiana Derby-G2, and not only did the son of Not This Time stalk, pounce, and accelerate in his thoroughly pleasing two and one-half length victory, he did so with a career top speed figure and without being asked for his best in the 9.5 furlong race. His numbers have risen in each of his six career starts and there are no worries about the Derby’s classic distance. He rises to the top in this installment as we await the results of several other key Derby prep races in the next couple of weeks.
2 – Messier (T. Yakteen) – No longer in the Bob Baffert barn and therefore eligible to earn the required Kentucky Derby-G1 points that will assure a place in the starting gate, the son of Empire Maker looked sensational in a 1:11 2/5 six furlong workout March 27 and will have one more breeze prior to his next start, the Santa Anita Derby-G1, April 9. Still the fastest in his class based on speed figures, he was always going to be given a chance to participate in the Spring Classics via a trainer switch if that option became the last resort (and it was). His runaway 15-length victory in the Robert B. Lewis S.-G2 in early February remains the highest rated and most impressive performance by a 3-year-old this winter.
3 – Smile Happy (K. McPeek) – Lost little when suffering his first career defeat in a better-than-looked runner-up effort behind “loose-on-the-lead” Epicenter in the Risen Star S.-G2 at Fair Grounds. The Runhappy colt was caught in traffic and then finished with purpose against the race-shape after getting clear too late. He breezed an easy half mile in :48 4/5 at Gulfstream Park March 27 but will prep for the Kentucky Derby at Keeneland in the Blue Grass S.-G2 April 9.
4 - Simplification (A. Sano) – Once a devoted front runner/pace presser, the Antonio Sano-trained colt has learned to settle and produce a late kick, and his victory in the Fountain of Youth S.-G2 not only produced a career top speed figure but was accomplished with a far less-than-ideal trip. He breezed five furlongs in :59 4/5 at Gulfstream Park March 26 in a sharp drill that should have him set up nicely as the possible favorite in the Florida Derby-G1 April 2.
5 – White Abarrio (S. Joseph, Jr.) – His only defeat came when third to Smile Happy in the KJC S.-G2 last fall. He remained unbeaten in three starts at Gulfstream Park with his victory in the Holy Bull S.-G3 due in no small part to a perfect stalking trip that made his task easier than it should have been. He breezed three furlongs March 29 at Gulfstream Park in :34 4/5, with the Florida Derby-G1 April 2 his next objective.
6 - Classic Causeway (B. Lynch) – Produced the same type of victory in the Tampa Bay Derby-G2 as he did in the Sam F. Davis S.-G3, this time strolling on the lead through soft fractions and then proving uncatchable. Given his pristine trip as the controlling speed. the Beyer number should have been much stronger than the assigned 84, so while he was visually pleasing, massive improvement – at least according to the speed figure guys – will be required. The Florida Derby-G1 April 2 will be used as a final prep.
7 - Secret Oath (D. Wayne Lukas) - Was only moderate-to-good in a three-race campaign as a 2-year-old but is vastly improved, winning all three of her starts at Oaklawn Park in 2022, each victory more impressive than the previous. Trainer Wayne Lukas now will test her against the boys in the Arkansas Derby-G1, and a first or second place finish will earn her enough points to make the gate in Kentucky. She remained on edge with a 1:01 flat five furlong breeze March 25.
8 – Forbidden Kingdom (R. Mandella) – In his first start around two-turns, the son of American Pharoah blasted to the front and ran his foes into the ground in an eye-catching performance that produced a legitimate 98 Beyer speed figure. But winning in such a manner at a mile and one-sixteenth isn’t the same as doing so at the Derby’s classic distance of a mile and one-quarter. He missed a scheduled breeze last week due to a slight temperature a couple of weeks ago but turned in his best workout ever when breezing six furlongs in company 1:14 flat March 24. A collision with Messier in the Santa Anita Derby-G2 April 9 is on his agenda.
9 – Early Voting (C. Brown) – He is undefeated in two starts, a maiden win and a dominating score in the nine-furlong Withers S.-G3 over the deeper-than-quicksand main track at Aqueduct. The assigned Beyer number originally was a weak 78, but then a month later was arbitrarily raised nine points to 87, information that would have been useful BEFORE runner-up Un Ojo returned to win the Risen Star S.-G2 at 75-1. Breezed an easy five furlongs at Belmont Park in 1:00 2/5 on March 26.
10 – Emmanuel (T. Pletcher) – Was a well-backed second choice at 5/2 (behind Simplification) in the Fountain of Youth S.-G2 but wound up fourth, beaten just over five lengths, after a sluggish start that contributed to an extremely wide journey every step of the way. Bad trip and all, we expected a bit better. Deserves another chance and will receive it in the Blue Grass S.-G2 at Keeneland in one of the 100-point prep races to prove he’s as good as we originally thought he was. Breezed five furlongs in 1:01 3/5 at Palm Beach Downs March 25.
11 - Morello - Produced a workmanlike performance to remain unbeaten in three starts when winning the Gotham S.-G3 at the Big A over a one-turn mile with a perfect, pace-stalking trip. His Beyer numbers have gone from 72 to 84 to 96, a consistent leap of 12 points per outing. If he can continue that race-by-race level of improvement (easier said than done), he’ll win the Wood Memorial S.-G2. Breezed five furlongs in 1:01.3 over the Belmont Park training track March 28.
12 – Charge It (T. Pletcher) – Missed by a neck in his debut in January over a one-turn mile and then annihilated maidens at that same trip by more than eight lengths while never taking a deep breath and earning a 93 Beyer speed figure. What he concedes in experience might be offset by pure talent, or at least that is what his connections are hoping. Gets his chance to prove he belongs with the big boys in the Florida Derby after tuning up in :48 1/5 at Palm Beach Downs March 26.
13 – Zandon (C. Brown) – Won his debut sprinting, was unlucky when nosed out in the 9F Remsen S.-G2, and then was victimized by a wide trip and a lack of pace when third in the Risen Star S.-G2 in his sophomore debut. He’s a grinder but will run all day and may eventually be best suited as a Belmont Stakes-type. The Blue Grass S.-G1 is next. Breezed a half mile at Payson Park March 26 in :48 4/5.
14 – Mo Donegal (T. Pletcher) – Didn’t get the best of runs when rallying too late to be third in the Holy Bull S.-G3. Lacks a great turn of foot but has no distance limitations and has plenty of room to develop with additional experience. Was entered as the 5/2 morning like favorite in the Fountain of Youth S.-G2 (March 5) but drew a poor post, came up with a temperature, and had to scratched, leaving the Wood Memorial S.-G2 April 9 as a last chance option. Breezed a half mile in 1:00 4/5 at Palm Beach Downs March 26.
15 – Zozos (B. Cox) – Was undefeated in his first two starts, a game maiden sprint win at Fair Grounds in January and then a middle distance allowance pace-stalking score by more than 10 lengths at Oaklawn Park. However, he was match when going down by more than two lengths to Epicenter in the Louisiana Derby-G2 despite enjoying a pristine trip as the controlling speed. The son of Munnings remains on the Triple Crown trail but the belief is that this lightly-colt had every chance at Fair Grounds but simply wasn’t good enough.
16 - In Due Time (K. Breen) - finished second in the Fountain of Youth S.-G2. But other than being the culprit that caused a two-runner spill due to the carelessness of jockey Paco Lopez, the son of Not This Time did nothing noteworthy with a perfect, ground-saving trip that allowed him to clunk up without worrying the winner. It was an okay effort, nothing more. Breezed five furlongs in 1:00 flat at Palm Beach Downs March 25.