The week in review by TD Thornton
Epicenter (Not this time) is the first horse on this year’s GI Kentucky Derby track to return to the proverbial clubhouse. His afternoon work is done for the next six weeks, and he’s earned his place in America’s most important horse race in a thoroughly professional manner that checks many boxes on the list of Derby desires.
Epicenter’s undoubtedly dismantling of the Louisiana Derby GII field serves as a microcosm of his overall work: he’s an adept gate breaker. His racing style is all about speed without a craving for the lead. He throws quick quarter-mile splits without showing any visible signs of strain. He can fight the full length of the streak (although he didn’t need to in Saturday’s 2 1/2 even pin victory), and he gallops past the wire as if wanted more.
Want additional attributes that suggest a blanket of roses on the first Saturday in May might be within reach for this $260,000 Keeneland September colt? Epicenter, as a January colt with six lifetime runs, has the advantage of being one of the oldest and most experienced sophomores. His Beyer speed numbers climbed in every race without any wild fluctuation that might make them suspect. He won four starts, including three around two corners, one each at nine furlongs and 1 3/16 miles, and one on the Derby surface at Churchill Downs.
Epicenter’s only loss in the last six months came after he forced the issue between foes GIII Lecomte S., held off a wall of horses at the top of the lane, fended off a strong offer from the favorite total the length of the long Fair Grounds stretch, then was nailed to the wire by a 28-1 final shot (before coming back quickly in front several jumps after the finish).
The 102 Beyer that this standard bearer Winchell Thoroughbreds won during his antics in the Louisiana Derby will cause a lot of ink to flow. But here’s an even more impressive set of metrics that won’t get as much attention: Of all the two-lap Derby qualifying races held in 2022, regardless of distance, only three featured internal splits a quarter mile in less than 25 seconds each. Epicenter orchestrated two of those performances – its Louisiana Derby victories and the Grade II Risen Star S. (the other prep with all quarterbacks under 25 seconds was the GIII Holy Bull S. at Gulfstream.)
Yet despite this impressive list of achievements, it’s a safe bet that Epicenter won’t be favored on Derby day.
More than any other race of the year, Derby betting is heavily driven by headlines and easy-to-grasp media stories. Recency bias also plays a large role, meaning that the betting public puts an overemphasis on events that have just happened to the detriment of those further in the rear view mirror.
Simply put, Derby bettors love to focus on gripping stories that have to do with the explosive last race victories of young colts seen as borderline contenders (especially if they have human connections who like to talk about their odds).
While Epicenter is a lot of things in terms of racehorses, it would be an overstatement to call it “flashy.” Crank consistency is more his style, and these thoroughbred types are usually overlooked because there’s no surge of hype that drives gamble sentiment.
Six weeks is a small eternity before the Derby. As the glow of Epicenter’s brilliant winter/spring campaign fades, how many times do you think coach Steve Asmussen will have to politely address his 0-for-23 record in the Derby, the longest active drought on record . ? This stat will be repeated over and over again, and even if you don’t think it’s entirely relevant to Epicenter’s odds, it will certainly serve to inflate its odds.
Epicenter’s broad, bay shoulders must also carry the burden of the Louisiana Derby itself. Not only is New Orleans’ first race one of the least productive Kentucky Derby prep races in history, it’s also one that seems increasingly steeped in weird juju.
The Louisiana Derby dates back to 1894. Only two horses have won the Louisiana Derby and then the Kentucky Derby – Grindstone in 1996 and Black Gold in 1924. A Louisiana Derby runner-up – Funny Cide in 2003 – also scored in Louisville. But that’s all. No other horse that has even competed in the Louisiana Derby, regardless of where it finished, has ever crossed the finish line first under Churchill’s twin arrows.
Yet now, due to strange circumstances, the Louisiana Derby is set to have two of its equally run in the last three years recognized as Kentucky Derby winners by disqualification –Villa in 2019 (due to Maximum securityfault in the race) and Mandaloun in 2021 (pending the DQ still on appeal from Medina Spirit).
Villa never raced again after his Derby victory via DQ. Grindstone never raced again after his Louisiana/Kentucky Derby double, and when he died last week at age 29, he was the Kentucky Derby’s oldest living winner.
But Black Gold’s career arc is more unlikely than those two bizarre events combined.
According to legend (as summarized in the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame biography of Black Gold), a horse owner in the 1910s named Al Hoots had a vision on his deathbed that his mare U-See- It of 34 for 122 (sometimes spelled without the hyphens) would be bred to Colonel ER Bradley’s stallion, Black Toney, and that colt would win the Kentucky Derby. The mare had been so special to Hoots that once, armed with a shotgun, he refused to hand her over after she was claimed from a race in Juarez, Mexico.
Several years later, after Hoots died, his widow, Rosa Hoots, actually raised U-See-It with Black Toney. When oil was discovered soon after on her Oklahoma property, Mrs. Hoots became rich overnight and, in the spirit of the fortuitous oil strike, she named the colt Black Gold. As her husband predicted, Black Gold won the Kentucky Derby in 1924, making Rosa the first woman to raise and own a Derby winner.
Black Gold was retired to stud but was not fertile. He begot exactly one colt, one colt. He was killed by a lightning strike.
At the age of six, Black Gold was sent back to the racetrack for an unfortunate return. He went 0 for 4, and on his last start at the Fair Grounds, on January 18, 1928, he suffered a catastrophic injury and was buried in the infield of the track.
The Louisiana Derby has not lacked talent in recent decades. Some very good winners of this race – Risen Star, Peace Rules, Hot Rod Charlie – became Grade I winners without winning the Kentucky Derby. Asmussen himself even trained two eventual freshman graduates who won the Louisiana Derby, namely gun runner and Pyro.
This spring, Epicenter has the chance to rewrite the map of the Derby that connects New Orleans and Louisville. And if you like his odds following his Louisiana Derby score and what he’s shown us so far, wait another month and a half for his price to ripen on Kentucky Derby day.