By T. D. Thornton
This is annually the time of the season when we start hearing from trainers of Triple Crown contenders how markedly their sophomores have improved and matured over the past couple of months. So it was a bit of a surprise when Steve Asmussen told DRF.com last week that he hasn't seen much change in the colt who ran second as the beaten favorite in both the GI Kentucky Derby and GI Preakness S.
“What difference do I see? Nothing, which is perfect,” Asmussen said, noting Epicenter's ultra-consistency in training, which has now powered a 5-3-0 record from nine lifetime starts. “His numbers were faster than any 3-year-old I had going into the Derby, so incremental improvement will be harder to sustain because of how fast he was going early.”
We can bemoan the short-field graded stakes that have been served up at Saratoga so far this meet, but the Dandy's four-horse offering was as intriguing as it gets for handicapping races in which you can count the number of entrants on one hand.
Epicenter and Zandon (Upstart) were both kicking for home strongly and each had a blanket of roses within their grasp before they got blindsided by impossible longshot Rich Strike (Keen Ice) in the Derby, finishing two-three across the wire. While Zandon got rested to await Saratoga, Epicenter marched on to Baltimore, where he chased home the fresh, speed-centric Early Voting (Gun Runner) in the Preakness. Now 2 1/2 months later, those three lined up to headline the Dandy, with wild-card underdog Tawny Port (Pioneerof the Nile) making it a foursome after his Kentucky Derby seventh (beaten only 4 3/4 lengths at 80-1) and a favored win in the GIII Ohio Derby.
Early Voting loomed on paper as the obvious pacemaker, but the issue of who might force the issue was up for grabs. Zandon generally takes a while to unwind and Tawny Port has off-the-pace tendencies. Epicenter, who primarily relied on applying up-tempo pace pressure through his first six races, had switched to coming from farther back in both the Derby and the Preakness. But it was unclear if making one sustained run was really his preferred running style.
Epicenter got bet down to 6-5, again bearing the burden of favoritism he couldn't carry to victory in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. He came away last at the break under Joel Rosario, and briefly ran up into a tight spot on the heels of Tawny Port, who had crossed over and claimed the rail in third. Early Voting assumed command with ease, and his uncoupled stablemate, Zandon, seemed a touch out of his element in having to adopt the stalker's role by default–he'd only been 1 1/2 lengths off the lead down the backstretch once in five career races.
Early Voting cranked out opening quarters in :24.22 and :24.06, and the cadence seemed sustainable. Zandon and Tawny Port maintained their positions right behind the leader, while Epicenter, still last, was into the bit and edging up incrementally.
Jose Ortiz looked over his left shoulder a half mile from home and again over his right shoulder a furlong later, perhaps wondering why the favorite wasn't closer on both occasions. He began riding with greater urgency five-sixteenths from the finish, which is when Rosario, barely nudging his mount for guidance, swooped out to the five path, giving up ground in exchange for unimpeded passage while the front three converged under full-out drives down near the inside in upper stretch.
The quartet lined up four across the track at the eighth pole after third and fourth quarters in :23.98 and:24.29. But Epicenter clearly had superior momentum, and he came over the top with only a brisk hand ride for encouragement through a final eighth in :12.44 before being wrapped up under the wire to win by 1 1/2 lengths in 1:48.99 for nine furlongs.
That translates to a 102 Beyer Speed Figure. Underscoring Epicenter's reliability, that's the third time he's replicated that exact same number in his last four stats.
Exterminator would like a word with you…
Hats off to the record established by Jackie's Warrior (Maclean's Music) for winning Grade I stakes in three straight seasons at Saratoga with his romp in the GI Vanderbilt H. Saturday.
No disrespect to the accomplishment, but when I first heard that news, I was surprised no other horse from a bygone era had accomplished that feat, considering the Spa's history goes all the way back to 1864.
But keep in mind the graded stakes system in America dates to only 1974. That leaves 110 years of great horses out of the mix.
A racing historian who goes by the nostalgically clever Twitter handle @rileygrannan alerted TDN to the fact that, “'Grade 1' is the key distinction here. Busanda won Alabama in 1950 & Saratoga Cup in 1951 & 1952. Exterminator won four straight Saratoga Cups from 1919 to 1922. All before graded stakes system went into effect.”
Surely those stakes would have been considered Grade I equivalents back in the day.
Speaking of obscure records…
Quick: Can you name the only horse to earn over a million dollars while starting 29 times and never once going off as the favorite?
That would be Long Range Toddy (Take Charge Indy), who brought up the rear behind Jackie's Warrior in the public workout known as the Vanderbilt H.
I don't know if that's really a record. But it's a safe enough guess I'd bet a beer on it (corrections welcomed from actual database researchers).
The other oddball item within Long Range Toddy's past performance block is that despite a lifetime bankroll of $1,107,572, he hasn't won a race in more than three years, since before his notorious brush with fate coming off the far turn of the 2019 Kentucky Derby.
That was the Derby in which first-across-the-wire Maximum Security shifted outward while on the lead just prior to the five-sixteenths pole. Long Range Toddy was already spent from pressing the pace, but he had to check sharply as the result of chain-reaction crowding.
Long Range Toddy crossed the wire 17th but was elevated one position when the stewards disqualified Max for fouling him after an agonizingly long 22-minute review in front of a global audience.
It's debatable whether the incident was a true momentum-stopper for Long Range Toddy (next-out Preakness winner War of Will actually took the worst of it). But as far as history is concerned–the DQ was even litigated in federal court by Max's owners but the result stood–Long Range Toddy was judged the aggrieved party.
He's been an asterisk to infamy ever since. Still, there are worse ways to earn seven figures.
Since his score in the 2019 GII Rebel S., Long Range Toddy is 0-for-22, with a career mark of 4-4-4. The 6-year-old transitioned to sprinting after switching from Asmussen's barn to Dallas Stewart's for owner/breeder Willis Horton, and new owner Zenith Racing acquired him just prior to a 45-1 second in the GIII Commonwealth S. at Keeneland this past April.
In no-nonsense workmanlike fashion, Long Range Toddy continues to pick up black-type stakes checks and makes occasional forays into the graded ranks. A diet of six-figure allowance opportunities at Churchill and Oaklawn has also been good for his financial health.
Long Range Toddy isn't even the only remaining active participant out of what would come to be known as the first in a spate of “Dysfunctional Derbies” (we've since had a pandemic-necessitated September running, a drug DQ of the winner, and an 80-1 shocker by a colt who drew in off the also-eligible list).
In fact, four of the last five horses across the finish in that '19 Derby are still active. The other three are:
Tax (Arch), who ran 14th in the Derby, and recently returned off a nearly 1 1/2-year layoff to win the $100,000 Battery Park S. at Delaware July 9.
Roadster (Quality Road), 15th, who, like Long Range Toddy, has also not won a race since prior to the '19 Derby. The GI Santa Anita Derby victor is now training in the mid-Atlantic (scratched from a Colonial turf allowance July 19).
Gray Magician (Graydar), 19th in the Derby, subsequently won the Ellis Park Derby and a Keeneland allowance that season, but has been winless since. He ran fourth in a $16,000 claimer at Del Mar on opening day.