Epicenter ‘Pretty Sharp’ for Saturday’s 147th Preakness
Creative Minister, Not Epicenter Sports Winchell Bloodlines
‘Oath’ Owner: ‘We’ll Step Outside the Box within Reason’
BALTIMORE – Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Epicenter, the Kentucky Derby (G1) runner-up and probable favorite for Saturday’s 147th Preakness (G1) at Pimlico Race Course, had his penultimate training session at Churchill Downs Sunday morning before being vanned to Baltimore Tuesday. Epicenter galloped 1 1/2miles Sunday morning and will have one of Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen’s famous easy half-mile works early Monday morning.
“He seems to be pretty sharp,” said assistant trainer Scott Blasi, who oversees Asmussen’s Churchill division. “I love how he’s doing. He galloped today like that was nothing; walked off the track with good energy. We’ll put a little work in him and go. Not much to do from here on out…. [but] win,” an apparent reference to Epicenter’s huge effort in the Derby, when he looked like the winner in mid-stretch only to get passed in the final strides on the inside by 80-1 Rich Strike.
Asked if the sting of the Derby defeat had ebbed, Blasi said, “If you don’t learn to turn the page in this game, you’re going to be a miserable human. What’s done is done. Move on.”
Asmussen won the Preakness in 2007 with 2007-2008 Horse of the Year Curlin and in 2009 with Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra.
Asmussen has been in Texas the past few days but told the Maryland Jockey Club’s Naomi Tukker: “Obviously we’re very proud of Epicenter and who he is and the races he’s run this year. But it was disappointing to be in that position, feel as confident as we did and not come away with the victory. But Rich Strike ran the better race and is the deserving winner. We will gladly regroup and try to represent well in the Preakness.”
Epicenter won the Louisiana Derby (G2) at the Preakness’ 1 3/16-mile distance six weeks before the Kentucky Derby.
Creative Minister, Not Epicenter Sports Winchell Bloodlines
Winchell Thoroughbreds’ breeding program, one of America’s most successful breed-to-race operations, will be represented in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico Race Course. However, it won’t be represented by Kentucky Derby (G1) runner-up and probable Preakness favorite Epicenter, whom Ron Winchell purchased for $260,000 as a yearling from Bowling Green, Ky., breeder Westwind Farms. Rather it’s Creative Minister, a Derby Day allowance winner for trainer Kenny McPeek and majority owners Paul Fireman’s Fern Circle Stables and Greg Back.
Winchell’s Winchell Thoroughbreds did not breed Creative Minister; but it did breed the colt’s dam, Tamboz, a daughter of the Winchell-raced stallion Tapit and his mare Winning Call (whose only win in four starts came as a 4-year-old maiden before retiring with earnings of $10,400.) As an aside, Winning Call was trained by a young horseman named Steve Asmussen, who then was getting the Winchell second string to run in the Southwest and Midwest.
Born in 2006, Tamboz was in Tapit’s first crop, before he established himself as the super-sire he is today - and well before Tamboz’s full brother Tapizar won the 2012 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1).
Tamboz fetched $29,000 as a yearling at auction and would seem to have been well sold. She went on to win only 1 of 21 races and $38,530 while racing mostly in claiming races at Charles Town and Colonial Downs. However, she has passed on the right genes to her offspring. All eight of Tamboz’ foals to race are winners, five of them stakes-placed.
Tamboz traces to the mare who started the Winchell breeding empire: Carols Christmas, a swaybacked but speedy filly claimed in 1981 for $25,000 by Verne Winchell. Carols Christmas might have been conformationally challenged, but she went on to produce Grade 1 winner (and Preakness fourth-place finisher) Olympio and Grade 2 winner Call Now. Her daughters proved better broodmares than racehorses, producing major winners Cuvee, Bien Nicole, Wild Wonder, Fun House, Early Flyer and Will He Shine. Fun House is the dam of champion Untapable, Winchell’s 2014 Kentucky Oaks (G1) and Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1) winner, and $1.7 million-earner Paddy O’Prado.
“We were pretty cautious about not letting go much of that family,” said David Fiske, the Winchell family’s long-time bloodstock and farm manager. “Obviously, we sold a few that we didn’t regret, and we kept many that we did. The whole family was ‘don’t give up on them just because they didn’t run.’ … We kept as many as we could, and greatly benefited over the years.”
Creative Minister comes by his gray/roan (the official Jockey Club color designation) coat honestly. Gray and roan can be difficult to distinguish between, the difference being the often very subtle red hairs in a roan - hence they were grouped together instead of being two separate official colors of Thoroughbreds.
Creative Minister is a son of 2012 Preakness third-place finisher Creative Cause, himself gray/roan and whose dam, Dream of Summer, was gray/roan, as was her dad, Siberian Summer, and his dad (Siberian Express), granddad Caro, great granddad Fortino II and great-great granddad Grey Sovereign, a foal of 1948.
On Creative Minister’s female side: Tamboz and Tapit are both gray/roans. Tapit’s mom was the gray/roan Tap Your Heels, whose mom, grandma, great grandma and great great grandma were - yes - gray/roan.
Creative Minister is scheduled to van to Baltimore on Tuesday, McPeek said.
‘Oath’ Owner: ‘We’ll Step Outside the Box within Reason’
The groundwork to run Briland Farm’s filly Secret Oath in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes (G1) began in the days after she won an Oaklawn Park allowance race by 8 1/2 lengths on Dec. 31. The deadline to make horses early nominees for the Triple Crown at a cost of $600 was Jan. 29, vs. $6,000 by March 28 for late nominations.
“Wayne said, ‘We ought to nominate her to the Triple Crown series,’” said Rob Mitchell, who bred and co-owns Secret Oath with his wife, Stacy. “I said, ‘Eh, I don’t think so. She’s not going to be a Derby horse.’ He said, ‘No, no. But if she’s really good, then we could shoot for the Oaks and the Preakness.’ I said, ‘Let me think about it. Will people think we’re crazy to nominate a filly to the Triple Crown trail?’ Then I started doing the Google thing and saw that every year seven, eight, nine, 10 fillies are nominated. I thought this was a very rare thing. But no, it’s not. Once I realized that, I said, ‘Let’s go ahead and do it.’ Then of course she wins the Martha Washington (by 7 1/2lengths) and she wins the Honeybee (by 7 1/2).”
After those impressive stakes victories at Oaklawn, Secret Oath was routed to the Arkansas Derby (G1).
“We were thinking a Grade 1, $1.25 million purse and then the Oaks and then see how we think about the Preakness,” Rob Mitchell said in a phone interview. “I just view it as horse vs. horse. She looks really good. Really strong, perky, muscled up. I just think it’s the right race at the right time. But after this is over, Wayne and I have talked - I don’t care if she wins or comes in last – she’s getting a break for eight or nine weeks.”
Lukas will try to win his second Triple Crown race with a filly, the first being 1988 Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Winning Colors, who finished third in the Preakness.
“We’ll step outside of the box within reason,” Mitchell said. “I really felt like we should have won the Arkansas Derby, but we didn’t. I can see stepping out of the box a little bit. But I’m not thinking Travers, Haskell, Belmont.” He added with a laugh, “Maybe out of the box, but I don’t want to step out of the area code.
“I think the Preakness suits her as far as timing. I don’t think it would have been good to wait until the Coaching Club Oaks [July 23]. That would be quite a wait if we didn’t do anything. And she came out of this much better than she came out of the Arkansas Derby. She was really tired the next day after the Arkansas Derby.”
Mitchell said he didn’t need to be convinced to take on the boys again, but rather be convinced that the Preakness wasn't too soon after the Oaks.
“But I saw her the day after the Oaks and I saw her Friday,” he said. "Totally different horse than after the Arkansas Derby. She started her move so soon in the Arkansas Derby that she was totally depleted with half a furlong to go. Then you go all out that last half-furlong when you have no gas in the tank. She was really washed out for a few days. But that wasn’t the case with the Oaks. If anything, it might have made her stronger.”
A week after their biggest victory as an owner or breeder, Mitchell said: “We watched the replay 10 times to convince ourselves we won. It’s still kind of hard to believe, a bit of a blur. I saw when she was coming around that turn and into the stretch; I had a really good feeling. I saw her do that three times in Arkansas – actually four times. I saw her do it in the Arkansas Derby; she just did it at the wrong time.”
Secret Oath had another good-looking gallop Sunday morning under Danielle Rosier shortly after the Churchill Downs track opened at 5:30 a.m. Lukas said she will leave early Monday for Baltimore, along with stablemate Ethereal Road, who is scheduled to run in Saturday’s $100,000 Sir Barton for horses that have never won an open stakes.
Early Voting Has Recent History on His Side
Klaravich Stable’s Early Voting will have the chance Saturday at Pimlico Race Course to become the third straight horse and seventh this century that did not run in the Kentucky Derby (G1) to prevail in the Preakness Stakes (G1).
Typically, the Preakness has been won by horses that ran two weeks earlier in the Derby. That trend has been interrupted in recent years with Cloud Computing (2017), the filly Swiss Skydiver (2020) and Rombauer (2021) finishing first in the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown. Swiss Skydiver’s win came in the Covid 19-delayed Preakness, which was conducted in October.
Trainer Chad Brown is using the same script that worked for him with Cloud Computing, who was co-owned by Klaravich. Rather than run a lightly raced colt in the huge field of the Derby, he opted to let the second-place finisher in the Wood Memorial (G2) stay home at Belmont Park and get ready for the Preakness. Like Cloud Computing, the Preakness will be the fourth career start for Early Voting, a member of Gun Runner’s first crop.
In 2000, Stronach Stable’s Red Bullet handled the heavily favored Derby winner Fusaichi Pegasus by 3 1/2 lengths. Bernardini won the 2006 Preakness after Derby winner Barbaro was injured in the first run through the stretch. The Hall of Fame filly Rachel Alexandra jumped from an emphatic victory in the Kentucky Oaks (G1) to handle males in the 2009 Preakness.
Early Voting won this first two career starts but was beaten a neck by Mo Donegal in the April 9 Wood. Though Early Voting had enough qualifying points to make it into the Derby field with stablemate Zandon, who ended up third, Brown opted to wait for the Preakness.
“It was not a hard decision,” Brown said. “It made a lot of sense. It’s something that we carefully studied. He was under consideration for the Derby right up until the week before the race, but ultimately, we are comfortable with this decision.”
Early Voting worked five furlongs in 1:00.63 Friday at Belmont Park and is scheduled to be shipped to Pimlico on Tuesday.
Blinkers Back on Happy Jack for Middle Jewel
Trainer Doug O’Neill experimented in the Kentucky Derby (G1) with Happy Jack.
It didn’t work.
So, when the son of 2013 Preakness winner Oxbow runs in Saturday’s Preakness (G1) at Pimlico Race Course, O’Neill will put the blinkers back on Happy Jack.
Happy Jack wore the hood in three of his first four starts before O’Neill opted to remove them before the Run for the Roses. Happy Jack was never a factor, finishing 14th at odds of 23-1.
“In the Derby, you’re trying to navigate 1 1/2 miles against 19 other horses,” O’Neill said, who won the Preakness in 2012 with I’ll Have Another. “By taking the blinkers off, I thought it would give him a chance to get a little breather.”
Happy Jack wore the blinkers in his first career start and broke his maiden at Santa Anita on Jan. 22. O’Neill kept them on in the Robert B. Lewis (G3) at Santa Anita on Feb. 6 and the colt finished last in the field of five, beaten 27 1/2lengths.
The hood came off in the San Felipe (G2) on March 5 and Happy Jack was third, beaten 10 1/2lengths. They were back on in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and he was third again, finishing 12 1/2lengths behind Taiba.
Heading into the Preakness, the blinkers are going back on.
“He is kind of a grinder,” O’Neill said. “I think he has to be more involved early. Hopefully, with a shorter field, a better post position and with the blinkers on, he can be more forwardly placed. He’s a trier and a stayer, and I think he can make up more ground more forwardly placed.”
Happy Jack is scheduled to arrive in Baltimore on Tuesday. He galloped 1 1/2miles at Churchill Downs on Sunday morning.
“Knock on wood, he’s doing well.” O’Neill said.
O’Neill is scheduled to fly to Baltimore from California on Wednesday and be on the Pimlico grounds Thursday.
All Systems ‘Go’ for Un Ojo to Run in Preakness
Un Ojo, the one-eyed winner of Oaklawn Park’s Rebel (G2) at 75-1 odds, came out of his Saturday workout in good order and is scheduled to van to Baltimore Monday afternoon, trainer Ricky Courville said.
The gelding worked five-eighths of a mile at Churchill Downs in 1:02, galloping out three-quarters of a mile in a strong 1:14 3/5. He had a scheduled walk day Sunday, with his care overseen by Courville’s son and assistant trainer, Clay Courville.
Un Ojo, owned by Cypress Creek Equine and Whispering Oaks Farm, was withdrawn from Kentucky Derby consideration on May 2, the morning that entries were taken because of a minor foot bruise.
“The next day after we didn’t enter, he was pretty good,” Courville said by phone from his Copper Crowne Training Center base in Opelousas, La. “We were soaking the foot a couple of days, and Tuesday morning he got really good. We just gave him the rest of the week, soaking it, making sure, and went on and sent him back to the track Derby morning. He’s been training since. It was just unfortunate. Monday [entry day] he wasn’t 100 percent; Tuesday he was.”
Because their hotel rooms were non-refundable for Derby weekend, Ricky Courville said he stayed in town for the race. He watched 80-1 Rich Strike – who had drawn in off the also-eligible list – rally from last behind the fastest first quarter-mile in Derby history to get past favored Epicenter in the closing strides.
“After the race, I thought it set up perfect – it would have been good for [Un Ojo], with his running style,” Ricky Courville said of his New York-bred son of Laoban. “But you don’t know what hole we would have drawn. Would it have changed the race if we were in it? Just a lot of ‘what ifs.’ You got to move forward and not even think about it. Clay was upset. But it’s done; on to the next race.”
Now he’s hoping Un Ojo pulls off another upset in the Preakness.
“I mean, we had a lot of confidence heading into the Derby,” Ricky Courville said. “He was working so good over the Churchill track. Because he’s not much of a workhorse, he never was. He’d work here at Copper Crowne. It’s kind of a two-turn five-eighths work over a six-furlong track. He’ll go in 1:03, 1:02 if you ask him. He goes to Churchill and goes in 59 [seconds] and just looks like he’s loping. He was loving that track.”
Simplification One of Three Derby Starters in Preakness
Tami Bobo and Tristan De Meric’s Simplification galloped 1 1/2miles at Pimlico Race Course Sunday morning in preparation for a start in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes (G1).
The son of Not This Time is expected to be one of the horses in the Preakness field that competed in the May 7 Kentucky Derby (G1). Simplification, who rallied from 15th to finish fourth following a very wide trip at Churchill Downs, will be joined by Derby runner-up Epicenter in the field for the Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown and 14th-place-finisher Happy Jack when entries are taken Monday.
Gulfstream Park-based trainer Antonio Sano arrived to join his Fountain of Youth (G2) winner at Pimlico Sunday afternoon.
Armagnac Will Make Two-Week Turnaround Saturday
An eye-opening allowance victory at Santa Anita last Sunday paved the way for a trip to Baltimore. After Armagnac streaked under the finish line as an easy 4 �-length winner in that race, it was decided his next start would be the Preakness Stakes (G1) at Pimlico Race Course Saturday.
“We feel we have a good horse who is improving at the right time,” said Tom Ryan, the managing partner of SF Racing, which co-owns Armagnac.
SF Racing owns the son of Quality Road along with Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Robert Masterson, Stonestreet Stables, Jay Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital, Catherine Donovan, Golconda Stable and Siena Farm.
Armagnac is trained by Tim Yakteen and will be ridden for the first time by Irad Ortiz Jr. in the Preakness.
The allowance win, contested at 1 1/16 miles, was Armagnac’s second win in five career starts.
Ryan knows they will be asking a lot of their horse in the Preakness.
“He might be 15- or 20-1,” Ryan said. “We think it’s something we have to go in and see how it plays out. No one thought the (Kentucky) Derby winner was going to win the Derby.”
That, of course, was Rich Strike, who won the Run for the Roses at 80-1 odds.
Coming back on the short rest is a cause for concern, but Armagnac isn’t the only Preakness runner doing the quick turnaround. Likely Preakness favorite Epicenter was second in the Derby; Simplification was fourth; and the filly, Secret Oath, won the Kentucky Oaks (G1) on May 6.
Also, Happy Jack, 14th in the Derby, and Creative Minister, an allowance winner on Derby day, are wheeling back in the Preakness.
“We ran last Sunday, and we had to run fast to win,” Ryan said of Armagnac’s gate-to-wire victory. “But Epicenter had no walk in the park and the filly (Secret Oath) ran massive in the Oaks. Grade 1 races are Grade 1 races, man. They are hard to win.”
The Preakness will be the third graded stakes race for Armagnac. He was fourth, beaten a neck for third by Happy Jack in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) on April 9 and was sixth, 27 1/2 lengths behind Forbidden Kingdom in the San Felipe (G2) on March 5.
Skippylongstocking Enroute from Florida to Pimlico
Daniel Alonso’s Skippylongstocking began his journey by van from Palm Meadows, Gulfstream Park’s satellite training facility in Palm Beach County, Fla., to Pimlico Race Course early Sunday afternoon.
The third-place finisher in the April 9 Wood Memorial (G2) at Aqueduct is expected to arrive in Baltimore early Monday morning to continue training for a start in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes (G1).
Shake Em Loose will bypass the Preakness in favor of the James W. Murphy, a mile stakes on turf for 3-year-olds on Saturday’s undercard, after breezing on the turf at Laurel Park Sunday morning to the satisfaction of owner/trainer Rudy Sanchez-Salomon.