Welcome to 2022 Kentucky Derby Prospect Snapshots, where we’ll take a look each week at a recent winner on the Triple Crown trail, usually from the Road to the Kentucky Derby schedule from which the racehorses earn points toward qualifying.
This week, we’ll take a closer look at Epicenter, who won the Gun Runner Stakes, a new prep race on the Derby trail, Dec. 26 at Fair Grounds. He earned 10 points toward qualifying for the 2022 Kentucky Derby with that win and he ranks eighth on the latest Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard.
Racing Résumé: Epicenter showed early speed in his Sept. 18 debut at Churchill Downs but faded after setting a contested early pace and finished sixth, beaten by 7 ¾ lengths, in a sprint held at seven-eighths of a mile. He returned during Churchill’s fall meet and was much better in his second start going a one-turn mile on Nov. 13. Epicenter moved up to set a pressured pace soon after the break and powered clear in early stretch under Joel Rosario, winning by 3 ½ lengths.
Trainer Steve Asmussen shipped Epicenter to Fair Grounds for the inaugural Gun Runner Stakes, a $100,000 race held the day after Christmas at 1 1/16 miles and around two turns. He picked up his third different rider in as many races, and this time Brian Hernandez Jr. allowed Epicenter to sit just off of early leader Surfer Dude through the first turn and into the backstretch. Hernandez nudged his mount to engage the pacesetter heading into the far turn, and Epicenter forged ahead at the top of the lane to put away that foe and easily hold off a mild challenge from stakes-winning sprinter Tejano Twist to prevail by 6 ½ lengths. He was ridden out by Hernandez late in the race to test his mettle at the longer distance and new configuration, and he looked good visually stretching out.
“We love his tactical speed,” Asmussen’s assistant Scott Blasi told Marcus Hersh of Daily Racing Form. “He’s still lightly raced. He’s learning, and hopefully there are better things to come.”
Speed Figures: Epicenter boosted his Equibase Speed Figure 19 points to a 97 in his second start and first win at Churchill, and added another point to earn a 98 in the Gun Runner. Those figures are in the ballpark with other horses prominent on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard such as Jack Christopher (104), Rattle N Roll (99), and Pappacap (95) as well as TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance winner Corniche (98). His Beyer Speed Figure of 87 from the Gun Runner was less impressive, but this colt obviously has time to improve over the next few months.
Running Style: As noted above, it was encouraging to see Epicenter rate off of the early pace in his two-turn debut at Fair Grounds. That willingness to settle while still showing speed has proven to be very successful in recent Kentucky Derbys. He ran straight and with a vigorous stride when urged by Hernandez in early stretch and appeared capable of handling extra distance in his future starts.
Connections: Winchell Thoroughbreds purchased Epicenter for $260,000 from breeder Westwind Farms at the 2020 Keeneland September yearling sale. Started by the late Verne Winchell and currently managed by his son Ron, the family operation has been one of the most prominent owners in horse racing this century, campaigning stars such as champion filly Untapable, leading sire Tapit, and current standout Midnight Bourbon, who finished second in the 2021 Preakness Stakes and Runhappy Travers Stakes. They also co-own Echo Zulu, a shoo-in to be crowned 2021’s champion 2-year-old filly Feb. 10 at the Eclipse Awards, and last summer’s Hill ‘n’ Dale Metropolitan Handicap winner Silver State. Lastly, Winchell Thoroughbreds co-owned the namesake for Epicenter’s breakthrough race, 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner. Gun Runner finished third in the 2016 Kentucky Derby.
Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen trains Winchell-owned racehorses. On Aug. 7, he became the all-time winningest trainer in North America, notching number 9,446 at Saratoga with Stellar Tap, co-owned by Winchell Thoroughbreds. Asmussen has won two Eclipse Awards as Outstanding Trainer and he won one Belmont Stakes and two editions of the Preakness Stakes. He’s finished second twice and third twice in the Kentucky Derby.
Brian Hernandez Jr. is a leading jockey on the Kentucky and Louisiana circuits who won the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Classic aboard Fort Larned. He’s yet to hit the board in the Kentucky Derby. Hernandez usually rides some of trainer Ken McPeek’s top Derby contenders, and he piloted Rattle N Roll to an impressive Grade 1 win in the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity for McPeek last October at Keeneland.
Pedigree Notes: Epicenter is from the second crop of sire Not This Time, a son of the late great Giant’s Causeway who finished second in the 2016 Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile but did not race again due to injury. His trainer, Dale Romans, said that fall that Not This Time was one of the most talented horses he had trained – “spooky good” was the phrase used – and he has carried that ability over to his early career in the breeding shed. Not This Time finished third on the North American freshman sire list in 2020 and ranks first among second-crop sires with one week to go in 2021, tallying over $5.4 million in progeny earnings.
Epicenter’s dam, the Candy Ride mare Silent Candy, won five of 19 starts and earned over $180,000 racing primarily on turf. She won the one-mile Hatoof Stakes on grass at Arlington Park in 2010.
His second dam, Silent Queen, was a sprinter who also produced a decent turf router in $280,000 earner Quite a Handful. Overall, though, this colt’s female family doesn’t exactly inspire Kentucky Derby dreams in terms of dirt and distance ability, although Candy Ride is a welcome influence in all respects.
Derby Potential: There are some positives for Winchell Thoroughbreds and Asmussen to bank on as they plot Epicenter’s next start, which could come on Jan. 22 in the 1 1/6-mile Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds, the second of four qualifying points races for the 2022 Kentucky Derby at the New Orleans track. He passed his two-turn test with aplomb and showed maturity when handled by his rider in just his third career start. On the other hand, there are some concerns about his pedigree on his dam’s side, and his level of competition through those three starts is a bit suspect – Surfer Dude finished third to this horse in both his debut win and in the Gun Runner, and Tejano Twist, while a nice racehorse, should probably go back to sprints after his solid but non-threatening runner-up effort in the Gun Runner.
Going forward, Epicenter figures to be one of several runners Asmussen and Winchell will maneuver on the Road to the Kentucky Derby over the next four months, and he’s definitely worth keeping tabs on as possibly this winter’s version of Midnight Bourbon.