Is Kentucky Derby runner-up Epicenter a cinch to win this Saturday’s 147th running of the $1.65 million Preakness Stakes at Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course?
A lot of people think so. Hence, appropriately, Epicenter has been pegged as the strong 6-5 favorite on Keith Feustle’s morning line for the 1 3/16-mile middle jewel in the sport’s Triple Crown.
It is known even before the Preakness is run that there will be no Triple Crown winner this year. Rich Strike, dismissed by the bettors at 80-1 in the Kentucky Derby, registered the second-biggest upset in the race’s history. After single-handedly killing a ton of mutuel tickets at Churchill Downs on May 7, Rich Strike is skipping the Preakness to await the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes on June 11.
I totally get all the love for Epicenter. Even though he did not win the 1 1/4-mile Kentucky Derby, Epicenter ran a heck of a race in defeat as the 4-1 favorite. He also received quite a heady ride by 2021 Eclipse Award-winning jockey Joel Rosario.
Prior to the Kentucky Derby, Epicenter had never been farther back than third early in his six career starts. But Rosario wisely allowed Epicenter to be eighth at the finish line the first time (or a quarter-mile after the start) in the Run for the Roses. Why was that such a smart move on the part of Rosario? Because any horse closer than eighth to the ridiculously fast early pace paid the price and finished up the track.
The opening quarter-mile fraction of :21.78 was the fastest in the 148-year history of the Kentucky Derby. The first half in :45.36 also was scorching.
The seven horses in front of Epicenter at the first quarter would go on to finish no better than 10th.
A furlong from the finish, it appeared that the 2022 Kentucky Derby winner was going to be either Epicenter or Zandon. Epicenter was leading by one length at that point. Zandon was second, three lengths in front of gigantic longshot Rich Strike.
History was on Epicenter and Zandon’s side. That’s because by being one-two a furlong from the finish, they were where 56 of the last 59 Kentucky Derby winners prior to this year had been at that point in the race.
But Rich Strike, who had been far back early in the field of 20, generated a powerful closing kick by running his final quarter in :24 and change to win by three-quarters of a length.
Epicenter did everything he was supposed to do other than defeat Rich Strike. Epicenter finished second by stubbornly holding off Zandon throughout the final furlong. But instead of trainer Steve Asmussen finally getting the monkey off his back with his first Kentucky Derby victory, the Hall of Famer now is now 0 for 24. Rich Strike’s trainer? Eric Reed is 1 for 1.
I especially appreciate what a gem of consistency Epicenter has become. The Kentucky-bred Gun Runner colt has finished first or second in six consecutive races.
But I also look at Epicenter’s short betting price in the Preakness as being, in a word, unattractive, particularly in view of the historically poor record in the Preakness by horses to have finished second in the Kentucky Derby.
From 1994 to present, there has been exactly one Kentucky Derby runner-up who went on to win the Preakness. That was Exaggerator in 2016.
Of course, not every Kentucky Derby runner-up during this period raced a fortnight later in the big event at Old Hilltop. Even so, again from 1994 to present, the record of horses to have finished second in the Derby before running in the Preakness is an unenviable 1 for 14 during this 29-year period.
That does not exactly have me rushing to a computer or smart phone to bet on Epicenter to win the Preakness. I could see playing Epicenter to win at something more palatable, like 5-2 or higher. But I’m just not enthused at 6-5 or shorter.
Consequently, Secret Oath is my top pick in the Preakness at her much more attractive odds of 9-2 on the morning line.
Secret Oath happens to be the lone Grade I winner in the Preakness field, having achieved that status in the Kentucky Oaks. This indicates to me that this is not the strongest group of males ever assembled for a Preakness, not when none of them has yet to win a Grade I race.
My selections for this year’s Preakness Stakes are below:
1. Secret Oath (9-2 morning line)
2. Simplification (6-1)
3. Epicenter (5-2)
4. Early Voting (7-2)
“NEW SHOOTERS” HAVE HAD RECENT SUCCESS
It used to be that I would automatically take a stand against a so-called “new shooter” in the Preakness (i.e., a horse who did not run in the Kentucky Derby). But in the immortal words of Bob Dylan, it appears to me that the times they are a changin’.
From 2000 through 2016, only three new shooters won the Preakness: Red Bullet (2000), Bernardini (2006) and Rachel Alexandra (2009).
Now we’ve seen new shooters win three of the last five editions of the Preakness: Cloud Computing (2017), Swiss Skydiver (2020) and Rombauer (2021).
This recent trend makes it much easier for me to make my top pick someone other than the three Preakness entrants who started in the Kentucky Derby: Epicenter, Simplification and Happy Jack.
Furthermore, of the six new shooters to win the Preakness from 2000 to present, two have been fillies: Rachel Alexandra and Swiss Skydiver. This also makes it easier for me to go with Secret Oath, a filly.
TERRIBLE TRIP VS. THE BOYS
As far as I’m concerned, Secret Oath easily could have a four-race winning streak going into the Preakness. Her only defeat during the four-race sequence came when she had a dreadful trip and finished third in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park on April 2.
On Feb. 26, Secret Oath won Oaklawn’s Martha Washington Stakes by 7 1/4 lengths as a 1-2 favorite on Feb. 26. That was followed by a similarly decisive 7 1/2-length victory as a 1-5 favorite in Oaklawn’s Honeybee Stakes on Feb. 26.
After the Honeybee, Secret Oath faced male opponents and was sent off as the 7-5 favorite in theArkansas Derby. The Kentucky-bred daughter of Arrogate finished third to Cyberknife and Barber Road.
Secret Oath subsequently regained her winning ways, rallying from eighth to prevail by two lengths in the Kentucky Oaks on May 6.
While it’s true that Secret Oath did not win the Arkansas Derby, don’t forget that she did make an electrifying move on the far turn that day. After Secret Oath zoomed past foes during that portion of the race, I think she had a right to flatten out in the lane.
To be perfectly frank, I think a major reason Secret Oath rebounded from her Arkansas Derby setback to win the Kentucky Oaks is she received a considerably better ride in the Oaks when piloted for the first time in a race by Luis Saez.
I like it that Saez should be more comfortable and confident when riding Secret Oath in the Preakness after they had a chance to get acquainted on the first Friday in May.
LUKAS YET ANOTHER PLUS
Although Asmussen has been shut out in the Kentucky Derby, he has won the Preakness twice. Asmussen’s Preakness victories were with Curlin in 2007 and Rachel Alexandra in 2009.
Asmussen’s two Preakness wins fall well short of fellow Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas’ tally.
Lukas, who conditions Secret Oath, has won the Preakness six times: Codex (1980), Tank’s Prospect (1985), Tabasco Cat (1994), Timber Country (1995), Charismatic (1999) and Oxbow (2013).
If Secret Oath does get the job done Saturday, Lukas will tie R. Wyndham Walden and Bob Baffert for most Preakness wins by a trainer.
Secret Oath would become the seventh filly to win the Preakness, joining Flocarline (1903), Whimsical (1906), Rhine Maiden (1915), Nellie Morse (1924), Rachel Alexandra (2009) and Swiss Skydiver (2020).
While Lukas is trying to win this year’s Preakness with a filly, the Lukas-trained Codex defeated a filly who was attempting to win the Preakness in 1980.
Two weeks before the 1980 Preakness, Genuine Risk had become only the second filly to win the Kentucky Derby, following in the footsteps of the great Regret, the 1915 Derby winner.
Codex missed the 1980 Kentucky Derby due to not being nominated. A horse could not be supplemented to the Derby at that time. Codex won the Preakness by 4 3/4 lengths, but many believe he should have been disqualified for causing interference to Genuine Risk turning into the stretch. The decision to not take Codex’s number down was a judgment call on the part of the stewards that one can agree or disagree with. Where I think the stewards definitely blew it was not posting the inquiry sign.
Lukas already has won a Triple Crown race with a filly. He sent out Winning Colors to take the 1988 Kentucky Derby. To this day, Winning Colors is one of just three fillies to win the roses, along with the aforementioned Regret and Genuine Risk.
While it’s true that Lukas won the Kentucky Derby with Winning Colors, many people believe the trainer had an even more talented filly before that. Her name was Landaluce.
Landaluce burst onto the American racing scene in the summer of 1982. Following her first two races, there were those comparing her to the legendary Ruffian.
Texans L.R. “Bob” French and Barry Beal owned Landaluce. From the first crop of Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew, the filly was purchased as a yearling at Keeneland for $650,000 (more than $2 million in today’s dollars when adjusted for inflation).
Landaluce caused quite a stir when she kicked off her racing career at Hollywood Park on July 3. She won a six-furlong maiden race by seven lengths in a sizzling 1:08 1/5. It was believed to be the fastest a 2-year-old colt or filly had ever run six furlongs around a turn.
What Landaluce did just seven days later at that that same track made thousands of jaws drop.
In one of the most incredible performances ever seen at a California track, Landaluce won the six-furlong Hollywood Lassie Stakes by 21 lengths after being only 1 1/2 lengths in front at the quarter pole.
When I spoke to Lukas at his barn a couple of days after the Grade II Lassie, he said that “a lot of people told me they got goose bumps watching that race.”
I know that I sure did.
Landaluce’s final time in the Hollywood Lassie was 1:08 flat. She shattered the stakes record established by Terlingua four years earlier by four-fifths of a second. Terlingua’s trainer? D. Wayne Lukas.
Sadly, Landaluce became gravely ill and died from a severe bacterial infection. Her death occurred the same day that she was supposed to have run in the Grade I, $518,850 Hollywood Starlet Stakes.
In the Daily Racing Form book “Champions,” Steven Crist wrote: “Landaluce, the champion 2-year-old filly [of 1982], evoked legitimate comparisons to Ruffian, winning all five of her starts by a combined 46 1/2 lengths, but contracted an infection in November and died in Lukas’ arms.”
Landaluce’s tragic death left many wondering what she might have accomplished beyond the age of 2. Those who were fortunate enough to have witnessed her brilliance could not help feeling robbed of possibly seeing her in the Kentucky Derby and other major events.
A book called “Landaluce: The Story of Seattle Slew’s First Champion,” written by Mary Perdue, goes on sale this summer on July 2. It can be pre-ordered on the Amazon.com website. (Full disclosure, I had the honor of writing the forward for this book.)
LOGICAL REASONS TO GO IN PREAKNESS
As Secret Oath takes on males in Saturday’s Grade I Preakness, Lukas believes the filly should already have a Grade I victory against the boys to her credit.
“That trip in the Arkansas Derby was a tough one,” Lukas said in a BloodHorse article this week written by Bob Ehalt. “She should have won that race. That should be on her resume already.”
In Ehalt’s article, Lukas explained why he and Secret Oath’s owners and breeders, Rob and Stacy Mitchell (Briland Farm), decided to run the filly in the Preakness.
One of the reasons Secret Oath is in the Preakness is that Lukas looked the prospective field over and thinks the filly can be competitive.
Also taken into consideration were a race’s grade and distance in terms of what other options besides the Preakness are available for a 3-year-old filly at this time of the year.
“The Preakness is a Grade I, and the Black-Eyed Susan [a Grade II on Pimlico on May 20], really doesn’t do much for her resume, if you want to know the truth,” Lukas said. “The Acorn [at Belmont Park on June 11] is a Grade I, but you don’t want to cut back to a one-turn mile for it, and the Mother Goose [at Belmont on June 25] is a Grade II. This is a chance to do something special and step out of the box.”
Lukas noted that another reason Secret Oath was entered in the Preakness instead of the Black-Eyed Susan was the disparity in the two purses. The Preakness has purse of $1.65 million compared to $250,000 for the Black-Eyed Susan.
SIMPLIFICATION MAY PROVE TOUGH CUSTOMER
I think Simplification could have a big say in the Preakness after finishing a respectable fourth at odds of 35-1 in the Kentucky Derby.
Simplification’s biggest victory to date came in Gulfstream Park’s Fountain of Youth Stakes on March 5. The Florida-bred Not This Time colt rallied from seventh to win by a widening 3 1/2 lengths for trainer Antonio Sano. Simplification then finished third as the 2-1 favorite in the Florida Derby on April 2.
According to Trakus, Simplification traveled 6,736 feet in the Kentucky Derby. That was 65 feet (or approximately seven lengths) farther than Epicenter.
It will not be anything new if Simplification finishes fourth or better in the Preakness. He has finished at least fourth in seven straight starts.
As for Early Voting, will I be surprised if he wins the Preakness? Nope. The Kentucky-bred Gun Runner colt appears to have much ability. I gave serious consideration to making him my top pick.
Early Voting races for owner Klaravich Stables and trainer Chad Brown. Klaravich, in partnership with William Lawrence, and Brown won the 2017 Preakness with Cloud Computing.
Cloud Computing finished third in Aqueduct’s Wood Memorial, skipped the Kentucky Derby, then won the Preakness in his fourth career start.
Early Voting finished a close second to Mo Donegal in this year’s Wood, then likewise skipped the Kentucky Derby. Like Cloud Computing, the Preakness will be Early Voting’s fourth career start.
Brown sees “a lot of similarities” between Cloud Computing and Early Voting. The trainer said both 3-year-olds came out of the Wood as “lightly raced, improving horses that could use a little more time and experience than throw them into a 20-horse field in the [Kentucky] Derby.”
The decision by Early Voting’s connections to pass the Kentucky Derby looks like a genius move in that the colt’s running style is to be a pace factor early. This running style means there was a very good chance that Early Voting would not have hit the board in the Kentucky Derby due to probably being on or near the insane early pace. It is anticipated that the Preakness pace is not going to be anywhere close to as fast as the Derby pace.
With two wins from three career starts, Early Voting goes into the Preakness with an improving Beyer Speed Figure pattern. He recorded a 76 Beyer when victorious at first asking vs. Aqueduct maidens, then an 87 Beyer when he won the Withers Stakes at the Big A, then a 96 Beyer when narrowly beaten in the Wood.
Creative Minister, like Early Voting, sports an improving Beyer Speed Figure pattern. Kenny McPeek conditions the Kentucky-bred Creative Cause colt.
It took a serious $150,000 supplementary payment to make Creative Minister eligible to run in the Preakness. This will be his stakes debut. He is 10-1 on the Preakness morning line.
Creative Minister received a 76 Beyer Speed Figure when unveiled against Gulfstream maidens, then an 83 Beyer in a maiden win on a sloppy track at Keeneland, then a 92 Beyer in an allowance/optional claiming contest triumph on the Kentucky Derby undercard.
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