Edited NYRA Staff Release – Winchell Thoroughbreds racing manager and bloodstock advisor David Fiske is hoping that Epicenter can solidify himself as a leader amongst his 3-year-old male counterparts in Saturday’s Grade 2, $600,000 Jim Dandy at Saratoga Race Course.
Despite being favored in both the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby and Grade 1 Preakness, the Triple Crown run was a frustrating one for Epicenter, finishing second in both American Classics for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who teamed up with Winchell Thoroughbreds to win the 2018 Jim Dandy with Tenfold.
By leading third crop stallion Not This Time, Epicenter was eighth during the early portions of the Kentucky Derby, about six lengths off torrid opening fractions set by Summer Is Tomorrow. Advancing into fifth down the backstretch, Epicenter was in command around the far turn, meeting an outside challenge from Zandon in the stretch drive. But the day belonged to 80-1 longshot Rich Strike, who weaved his way through traffic down the stretch and passed Epicenter to the inside with a sixteenth to run.
Epicenter closed valiantly down the stretch in the Preakness with an inside rush, but came up 1 1/4 lengths short of Early Voting. Epicenter’s connections are now focused on races in the second half of the calendar year, including the Grade 1, $1.25 million Runhappy Travers on August 27.
Fiske said he is hopeful that the Jim Dandy, the nine-furlong traditional local prep for the Mid-Summer Derby, will be a good place to start.
“He’s training as well, or better, as he did throughout the Triple Crown races, so we’ll see,” Fiske said. “It seems like everyone is getting better this time of year, and I don’t know that he could be doing any better. Steve is pleased with him. He’s a pretty straight forward horse. I think during the Triple Crown I characterized him as almost machine like. He just does what you want him to do, goes back to his stall and lays down.”
Prior to his run in two-thirds of the Triple Crown, Epicenter secured Derby qualifying victories in Fair Grounds’ Risen Star and Louisiana Derby, both Grade 2. He earned a career-best 102 Beyer Speed Figure for his Louisiana Derby victory, defeating eventual Derby rivals Zozos and Pioneer of Medina by three-quarters of a length. He replicated that 102 number in the Preakness.
But despite his triple-digit speed figures, millionaire status and consistent record, Fiske lamented that the colt has yet to win a Grade 1 race.
“It would be incredibly rewarding. I find it interesting that he’s the only [top] 3-year-old without a Grade 1 on his resume. Everyone at the top of the list has one and he’s been close a couple times,” Fiske said. “The margin in the Derby and the Preakness was probably a little more than two-fifths of a second, so that’s disappointing. But we’re pretty confident that at some point in the future there’s a Grade 1 with his name on it.”
Asmussen and Winchell also campaigned 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner, who notched his first Grade 1 in the final start of his 3-year-old year, en route to five more Grade 1 wins throughout his career.
“I guess they’re similar, but that would be by circumstance. If not for two-fifths of a second, Epicenter would look like a way better 3-year-old than Gun Runner,” Fiske said. “I think it’s just a situational thing. By circumstance, the two records look similar. We haven’t lost any confidence in him. He’s still the same horse he was for the Triple Crown races. He’s a really sound horse like Gun Runner was, so going forward I would think he still has plenty of upside.”
Bought for $220,000 out of the Bettersworth Westwind Farms consignment at the 2020 Keeneland September Yearling Sale, Epicenter was acquired by his owners upon Asmussen’s consultation.
“He came out of book three. He was one Steve had seen and we were just about done with the sale at that point,” Fiske recalled. “We had bought several in the first two books, but Steve really liked him, so we went and looked at him. Steve is rarely wrong about these kind of things. We ran him through our usual tests with Dr. [David] Lambert at Equine Analysis. All that came back good, so we went on and put him in our shopping basket.”
Epicenter will face a compact field of familiar foes in the Jim Dandy, including Early Voting, Zandon and multiple graded-stakes winner Tawny Port, who finished seventh in the Kentucky Derby.
Fiske said he would expect to see Epicenter forwardly-placed after watching similarly tactical races last weekend at Saratoga with Nest taking the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks and the Asmussen-trained Clairiere prevailing under Joel Rosario in the Grade 2 Shuvee.
“Those short fields are almost like four-dimensional match races,” Fiske said. “It gets to be a rider’s race. Especially after watching Joel ride last weekend, I don’t think he’ll be too far off the pace.”
Breaking from post 2 at morning line odds of 3-2, Epicenter will once again be ridden by Rosario, who already has won five stakes during the meet.
Kneedeepinsnow ready for tough task in G1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt
The aptly named Kneedeepinsnow will make his Grade 1 debut in Saturday’s $350,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap for horses 3-years-old and upward sprinting six furlongs at Saratoga Race Course.
Trained by Matt Shirer, the 6-year-old son of Flat Out is distinctly marked with two white stockings on his front legs that reach his knees, making him easy to spot among Shirer’s six trainees he has stabled at Saratoga this summer.
“He looks like he’s been standing out in the snow,” said Shirer. “He’s a cool horse and pretty as can be, especially out on the track.”
Kneedeepinsnow, owned by Jeremy Sussman, Ten Strike Racing and Cory Moelis Racing, enters from a game third-place finish behind last year’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Aloha West in the Kelly’s Landing on July 2 at Churchill Downs. There, he led the field of seven through splits of 22.33 seconds, 44.80 and 1:09.07 before being collared at the stretch call. He kept on well under Ricardo Santana, Jr. to hold onto show honors as Aloha West and graded stakes-winner Miles Ahead sprinted to the finish 2 1/4 lengths ahead of him.
“He’s doing very good and got here a couple days ago. He ran huge last time,” said Shirer. “He set a fast pace and still held on for third. He got beat by the Breeders’ Cup Sprint champ from last year, so no shame in that. He’s fantastic and he’s training better than he ever has.”
It was the second stakes placing for Kneedeepinsnow, who finished second to Isolate in the Work All Week at Hawthorne two starts back. The two stakes efforts came in his first two outings for Shirer, who haltered Kneedeepinsnow for $80,000 out of an impressive optional claiming victory sprinting 6 1/2 furlongs on April 29 at Keeneland, garnering a career-high 100 Beyer Speed Figure.
The 6-year-old chestnut will test his Grade 1 ability in deep waters on Saturday, facing the formidable reigning Champion Male Sprinter Jackie’s Warrior and Grade 1-placed Ny Traffic. His other outings at the graded level were two distant finishes in the Grade 3 Palos Verdes last January and Grade 3 Whitmore in March; and a close fourth in the Grade 3 Green Flash in August at Del Mar.
“We all decided that we were up here at Saratoga and that we’d take a shot and see what happens,” said Shirer. “It will be pretty tough to beat Jackie’s Warrior, but he’s doing good, so we’ll take a shot.”
A win in the Vanderbilt would mark the first graded victory for both Shirer and Kneedeepinsnow, but Shirer said he just wants to see the evergreen gelding give a good account of himself.
“It would mean a lot. It’s a Grade 1, so we’ll see. I haven’t really thought about it or wrapped my mind around it,” said Shirer, with a laugh. “We’ll see what happens. I just want him to run good.”
Shirer has already visited the Saratoga winner’s circle this summer when his first starter of the meet, the New York-bred Quick Return, secured a 2 1/2-length victory in Race 3 on Thursday, a 6 1/2-furlong $12,500 claiming event over a good and sealed main track. The effort garnered a career-best 78 Beyer in his fourth win from 15 starts.
Though Quick Return was claimed out of the effort, Shirer said it feels good to enter a race like the Vanderbilt with a win at the Spa under his belt already.
“It’s always nice to win at Saratoga whether it’s a bottom claimer or a big race,” said Shirer. “He ran a good race and got a good number. He’s classy and a New York-bred, so I’m sure a lot of these guys knew him already. It was good to get off the mark early.”
Little Linzee follows in mom’s footsteps with debut victory at Saratoga
Jan Durrschmidt’s homebred filly Little Linzee won on debut Thursday at Saratoga Race Course, posting an 18-1 upset score in a 5 1/2-furlong turf maiden special weight for New York-bred juvenile fillies.
Confidently handled by Hall of Famer Javier Castellano through a light rain over the firm going, Little Linzee stalked the pace down the backside before taking the lead in the stretch and holding off 2-1 mutuel favorite Souffle by a nose for trainer Domenick Schettino.
“It’s a great feeling. Everybody wants to come up here and win,” said Schettino. “When you win with 2-year-olds first-time out it’s a special feeling.”
The Honorable Dillon grey gave Schettino something else to smile about, as he brought both her and her dam, Gee Linz, into the winner’s circle on debut at Saratoga – albeit a decade apart.
By Frost Giant and out of the Distinctive Pro mare Lil Linzer, Gee Linz drew off to a three-length debut score over a muddy and sealed Spa main track on August 5, 2012 and was promptly haltered by David Jacobson for $50,000.
“They trained in similar ways,” said Schettino. “They’re anxious and always want to do things first. They acted typically the same way around the barn with the same demeanor.”
Schettino said Little Linzee tipped her hand for an auspicious debut when firing a bullet workout going a half-mile in 48.66 seconds on July 18 on the main track.
“She had been training well in the morning with another filly I had here. She’d shown that she’s pretty fast in the morning,” said Schettino. “She’s a lot like her mom where she wants to go.”
The dam Gee Linz posted a record of 28-7-6-4 for purse earnings of $169,469, ending her racing career at Assiniboia Downs in Winnipeg, Manitoba, with trainer Wendy Anderson, winning four consecutive races from May-July 2014.
Gee Linz finished a close fifth in her final career start, defeated less than a length in a six-furlong claiming sprint on August 1, 2014, but still found her way back to the Empire State.
“I wanted her as a broodmare so I contacted the racing office at Assiniboia and gave my information for her trainer,” said Durrschmidt. “Someone had tried to claim her from her last race, but the claim was voided because of a misspelling. I bought her back privately and got International Horse Transport to bring her to New York.”
Not only did Durrschmidt raise Little Linzee and Gee Linz, but the connection also goes back a generation further to Gee Linz’s dam Lil Linzer. The family tree made the win all the more special, which Durrschmidt said Schettino was expecting.
“She was gutsy yesterday. Dom told me, ‘get ready for the picture at Saratoga,’” said Durrschmidt. ‘I was so happy she won for me and for Dom’s crew. All the backstretch people don’t get enough recognition. They do it for the love of the animal.”
Little Linzee is also a half-sister to another horse in Schettino’s barn, Danzigwiththestars, a 4-year-old gelding by War Dancer, who has enjoyed success of his own at Saratoga. He earned his third Spa win this year in an optional claimer on July 15.
Schettino made mention of that date specifically since it was exactly one year to the date that Danzigwiththestars broke his maiden at Saratoga last year, both times under the guidance of jockey Luis Saez and traveling the same distance of 1 1/16-miles on the grass – and both times at healthy odds of 7-1.
Durrschmidt also said there is a weanling full brother to Danzigwiththestars on the farm, who will soon be broken at Hickory Tree Farms in Virginia.
“I foal them out and at five months they leave and are out of my hands,” said Durrschmidt.
Schettino said he will be looking forward to meeting the next member of the family, while he works on a finding a next spot for Little Linzee.
“Little Linzee is following in her brother’s footsteps,” said Schettino. “They all love to win at Saratoga.”