When the ceremonial painting of the canoe at Saratoga Race Course takes place, there just might be a Hall of Famer with a paint brush in hand.
“This is extremely exciting,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “Coming from a racing family, [knowing] what Saratoga means to American racing and what the Travers means to Saratoga, I just want to help them paint the canoe. Saratoga is about tradition, racing is about tradition, and to have your name on that cup is very special.”
The painting of the canoe in the Spa’s infield lake, of course, is symbolic of a victory in the famed $1.25 million Runhappy Travers Stakes, and for the next year it sports the colors of the winning owner of “Mid-Summer Derby”.
So, in the next few days, with or without Asmussen’s help, the canoe will be painted in the maroon and white colors of Ron Winchell’s Winchell Thoroughbreds, thanks to a dominant 5 1/4-length victory by the Asmussen-trained Epicenter over the multiple Grade 1-winning Cyberknife Aug. 27 at the Spa that took some of the suspense out of the race for the 3-year-old male championship.
“I thought that answered a lot of questions,” Asmussen said about the race for the division’s Eclipse Award. “His resume looks very good and we’re willing to run against them again.”
While neither Asmussen nor Winchell would commit to the spot for Epicenter’s next start, in all likelihood, the son of Not This Time will train up to the Nov. 5 Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic, in which he will face older horses for the first time.
On Saturday, before a near-capacity crowd of 49,672. Epicenter removed any doubt over his leadership role in the 3-year-old division with a powerhouse performance that accounted for his first Grade 1 victory and helped wash away the sting of runner-up finishes as the favorite in both the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and the Preakness Stakes. In one fell swoop, he finished in front of the horses who beat him in the first two legs of the Triple Crown, Rich Strike (Derby winner, 4th in the Travers) and Early Voting (Preakness victor, 8th).
Bred by Westwind Farms out of the Candy Ride mare Silent Candy, Epicenter won for the fourth time in seven 2022 starts, with three second-place finishes rounding out his 3-year-old resume, and pushed his career earnings to $2,940,639. Aside from the Travers and his runner-up finishes in the Triple Crown, he has won the Jim Dandy Stakes, Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, and Risen Star Stakes Presented by Lamarque Ford.
“He’s exciting, isn’t he?” Asmussen said. “And thank goodness a sportsman owns him. It’s everything you hope for. You start with a talented horse who continues to get better. What can be better in racing than that?”
Like many owners, Winchell dreamed of winning the Travers. But what he found, after he and his late father before him futilely chased a Travers win, was that there was something better than imagining what the experience would be.
“Winning beats dreaming about winning,” he said after the first Travers win for both for him and Asmussen, the sport’s all-time winningest trainer. “You can dream about your horse winning powered down. Rarely does it happen, but to actually see it happen, what can be better than that? When he tipped out and made his move, you could see he was rolling and full of run.
“Coming here with Gun Runner [in 2016] and running third and Midnight Bourbon running second last year,” he added. “It makes you want to win it that much more. It makes this win that much more special for me and my family.”
Who would be the early leader in the Travers was a bit of a puzzle heading into the race and when the gates opened for the eight starters in the 1 1/4-mile test, it was Cyberknife and Florent Geroux who used their rail position to lead after early quarter-mile fractions of :23.32 and :47.63, even though he had never led before after the first two calls of a two-turn race.
Ain’t Life Grand and Early Voting chased the 9-2 second choice from the outside, while jockey Joel Rosario bided his time on the rail in fourth with even-money favorite Epicenter.
“We wanted to be forwardly placed and he was,” said Rosario, who rallied from fourth and last to take the Jim Dandy with Epicenter last month at the Spa. “He broke good and he was more in the race today. For a second, I thought I could just keep going forward to the lead, but it looked like those other horses wanted to be more forwardly placed. I just wanted to give him a good trip.”
After Cyberknife led by a half-length after six furlongs in 1:11.43, Rosario and Epicenter pounced. They tipped off the rail and moved outside of Cyberknife.
“I loved seeing that,” Asmussen said.
The two leaders dueled briefly before Epicenter took charge in the lane, extended to a 2 1/2-length lead at the eighth pole, and widened his margin from there, completing the 1 ¼ miles in 2:00.72 and giving Rosario a record-breaking 12th graded stakes victory at the meet.
“He turned in a dominating performance against a very good group,” Asmussen said. “He was in the rhythm he wanted to be in and he finished up the mile and a quarter very strong.”
Gold Square’s Cyberknife, a son of Gun Runner, hung on for second by a nose over Zandon. Owned by Saratoga resident Al Gold and trained by Brad Cox, who was trying for back-to-back Travers wins, Cyberknife was coming off a victory in the TVG.com Haskell Stakes, his second Grade 1 of the year.
“We were the second-best horse today,” Cox said.