Epicenter training for the Kentucky Derby (Photo by Coady Photography)
Saturday’s Preakness (G1) serves up a terrific clash between Epicenter, who was just caught in the final strides of the Kentucky Derby (G1), and the queen of the Kentucky Oaks (G1), Secret Oath.
Epicenter went off as the 4.10-1 favorite in the Derby after a near sweep of the Fair Grounds preps, capped by a track-record performance in the Louisiana Derby (G2). Surging to the lead turning for home in the Run for the Roses, Epicenter rebuffed a challenge from Zandon and appeared poised to give trainer Steve Asmussen his first Derby trophy. Then the 80-1 Rich Strike swooped from far back
to spring the surprise.
While Rich Strike is swerving the Preakness to arrive fresh for the third jewel, the June 11 Belmont S. (G1), Epicenter is looking for a classic win at Pimlico. The Winchell Thoroughbreds runner returns to the 1 3/16-mile distance of his Louisiana Derby score – a sixteenth shorter than the Derby – and he is tactically drawn near the outside, in post 8, with regular pilot Joel Rosario.
Hence Epicenter is pegged as the 6-5 favorite on the morning line to become Asmussen’s third Preakness winner, after fellow Hall of Famers Curlin (2007) and Rachel Alexandra (2009).
Only two others are renewing rivalry from the Kentucky Derby, fourth-placer Simplification (6-1) and 14th Happy Jack (30-1). Simplification brings fine Gulfstream Park form, as the Fountain of Youth (G2) winner and Florida Derby (G1) third, and he picks up Hall of Famer John Velazquez. Happy Jack has much more to prove, having finished a distant third in the San Felipe (G2) and Santa Anita Derby (G1).
Secret Oath (9-2) is arguably the most compelling of the six new shooters who did not compete in the Derby. Dominating the fillies’ division at Oaklawn Park, the daughter of the late, great Arrogate tried males in the Arkansas Derby (G1), but a difficult trip prevented her from showing her best in third. Secret Oath rebounded in style in the Kentucky Oaks, handing Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas a record-equaling fifth win
If Secret Oath can beat the boys in the Preakness, she would elevate Lukas to another record-tying feat, as his seventh winner of the middle jewel. Secret Oath has points in common with the most recent Preakness heroines, the aforementioned Rachel Alexandra and Swiss Skydiver (2020). Oaks-winning rider Luis Saez is back aboard in post 4.
Early Voting (7-2) is the other new shooter with strong claims. Indeed, the Chad Brown pupil had sufficient points for the Kentucky Derby. A front-running romper in the Withers (G3), Early Voting almost pulled off a similar coup in the Wood Memorial (G2), until caught late. Rather than toss the inexperienced colt into the Derby, connections wanted to give him a more realistic shot at the Preakness. Their conservative approach paid off before with Cloud Computing, the 2017 Preakness winner co-owned by Klaravich Stables and trained by Brown, and Early Voting can furnish dividends for them too.
Also exiting the Wood Memorial is third-placer Skippylongstocking (20-1). Improved since stepping up in distance for trainer Saffie Joseph, he hopes to emulate his sire and grandsire, Preakness heroes Exaggerator (2016) and Curlin.
The owners of Creative Minister (10-1) are putting up $150,000 to make him eligible for the Preakness. Not nominated to the Triple Crown because he was slow to come to hand, the Ken McPeek trainee has made rapid strides of late. Creative Minister turned heads with his allowance victory earlier on Derby Day at Churchill Downs, stating his case to aim higher here.
Armagnac (12-1) was trying to audition for the Derby, but a remote fourth in the Santa Anita Derby behind stablemates Taiba and Messier ended his hopes. The Tim Yakteen sophomore put himself in the Preakness mix by wiring a Santa Anita allowance.
The biggest longshot in the field, 50-1 Fenwick, was last in the Blue Grass (G1) in his only stakes attempt. Two starts ago, he scored a 21-1 maiden win at Tampa Bay Downs over heavy favorite Commandperformance, the Champagne (G1) runner-up who was also fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1). Commandperformance is still a maiden, but he gained vengeance of sorts when finishing eighth, ahead of Fenwick, in the Blue Grass.