Asmussen Front and 'Center' with Potential Derby Favorite

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Epicenter | Coady

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LOUISVILLE, KY –  As the all-time leading trainer at Churchill Downs, no one has won more races beneath the Twin Spires than Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen. Just not on the first Saturday in May.

Heading into GI Kentucky Derby 148 with 7-2 morning-line second choice Epicenter (Not This Time), as expected, Asmussen's well-documented 23-0-2-2 record in the 'Run for the Roses' has been a major topic of discussion.

“I don't know if it's healthy to want anything that much,” Asmussen said. “I grew up in horseracing. We've been unbelievably blessed with some of the greatest horses of all time, yet the Derby has eluded us. Going into this year, right now, I don't want to trade places with anybody. I love our chances.”

This may arguably be Asmussen's best shot so far.

Ninth at 43-1 with his first Kentucky Derby starter Fifty Stars in 2001, the 56-year-old has never saddled the favorite. Believe it or not, neither future superstar Curlin or Gun Runner was the public's choice in the Derby and only three of his starters have gone off at single digits.

Taking a look back, Asmussen's confidence was at its highest approaching the 2007 renewal, he said.

“I never in my wildest dreams thought Curlin could lose,” Asmussen said. “I did not. You could not get any more confident than that horse made you feel when you ran him. The walk back after he got beat was… Whew.  Long. Like going across the Sahara Desert.”

Unraced at two, making just his fourth lifetime start and backed as the narrowest of second choices at 5-1 off a trio of jaw-dropping victories, the mighty Curlin had to settle for a well-beaten third behind slightly favored Street Sense after some early trouble passing the crowd of 156,635 for the first time.

“Two weeks later, he proved it [by winning the GI Preakness S.],” Asmussen said of the two-time Horse of the Year and perennial leading sire. “Sometimes, it just isn't meant to be. He proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he was good enough. But it didn't happen.”

Carrying the same maroon-and-white silks of Winchell Thoroughbreds as Epicenter, the brilliant Gun Runner filled the third slot at 10-1 behind Nyquist after racing on a hot pace in the 2016 Kentucky Derby. The chestnut, of course, brought his game to an elite level as an older horse, led by wins in the GI Breeders' Cup Classic and GI Pegasus World Cup Invitational S. The 2017 Horse of the Year has excelled in his next career as well, setting a new record for progeny earnings as a first-crop sire last year.

“For him going into the breeding shed, and the success he's continuing, it's unbelievable to be a part of that,” Asmussen said.

Nehro and Lookin At Lee provided Asmussen with his two best placings in the Kentucky Derby so far, finishing second in 2011 and 2017, respectively.

Nehro, looking every bit a winner while looming boldly on the pacesetting Shackleford turning for home at a well-backed 8-1, couldn't withstand a devastating stretch run from Animal Kingdom. The rail-drawn Lookin At Lee enjoyed a perfect, ground-saving trip from far back and outran his 33-1 odds behind Always Dreaming.

“The visuals of those moments were goosebump exciting,” Asmussen said.

Derby also-rans like GI Belmont S. winner Creator (13th in 2016), GI Jockey Club Gold Cup S. winner Max Player (fifth in 2020) and the very popular, ill-fated GI Preakness S. and GI Runhappy Travers S. runner-up Midnight Bourbon (promoted to fifth via disqualification in 2021) enjoyed their share of top-level success afterward.

Albeit while racing for different connections, Asmussen Derby alumni also includes: GI Forego S. winner Pyro (eighth at 5-1 in 2008) and GI Santa Anita H. winner Combatant (18th in 2018), respectively.

“That's extremely important,” Asmussen said of that aforementioned group's subsequent accomplishments. “Extremely proud of that.”

A Deserving Choice…

Regardless of Mike Battaglia's much-discussed morning-line or where Jim “Mattress Mack” McIngvale's expected $3 to $4 million wager lands, Epicenter is every bit worthy of favoritism.

In key possession of a natural, high-cruising speed–more important than ever in the points system era as detailed in this space ahead of the 2018 Derby–Epicenter's resume is topped by a gate-to-wire success in a very live renewal of the GII Risen Star S. and a visually impressive, stalk-and-pounce victory with a career-best 102 Beyer Speed Figure in the GII TwinSpires.com Louisiana Derby.

Slight Kentucky Derby morning-line favorite and the very talented GI Toyota Blue Grass S. winner Zandon (Upstart) was back in third while making his sophomore debut in the Risen Star following an eventful journey.

A maiden winner at Churchill Downs at two, Epicenter has gradually been stretched in distance from seven furlongs on debut last September all the way to 1 3/16 miles in his final Derby prep in late March. His speed figures have improved with each and every one of his six career starts as well.

Jockey Joel Rosario, aboard 2013 Kentucky Derby winner Orb, has the call.

“I love where he's at–mentally and physically–and how he's getting over the racetrack,” Asmussen said. “He's had a lovely progression with a gradual stretch out. He's got nice gate speed and plenty of pace. In the Louisiana Derby, he showed that he can be more tractable and still have that burst going 1 3/16 miles. We're very fortunate to be associated with him. We have the one we want for running in the 2022 Derby.”

Bred in Kentucky by Westwind Farms, Epicenter brought $260,000 from the Winchell family on day six of the 2020 Keeneland September Yearling sale. Hailing from the second crop of leading young sire Not This Time, Epicenter is out of the stakes-winning and graded-stakes placed Candy Ride (Arg) mare Silent Candy.

It promises to be a huge weekend for Asmussen and owner Ron Winchell at Churchill Downs. North America's all-time winningest trainer will also be shooting for his third GI Kentucky Oaks win for the Winchells with unbeaten champion Echo Zulu (Gun Runner) on Friday.

“There's a lot of focus on the 0-for-23 and my pursuit of the Derby, but I've heard Ron [Winchell] in interviews recalling conversations that he had with his father [the late Verne Winchell] about his own pursuit of winning the Derby,” Asmussen said. “It's very meaningful. The association between the Winchells and Asmussens was started long before me and Ron.”

Asmussen concluded with a laugh, “We got to listen to conversations, but make no decisions.”

At 6:57 p.m. Saturday, Asmussen and Winchell will be more than happy to let Epicenter do all the talking.

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