By Dick Jerardi
In between a legendary salad in Little Italy, crab cakes at multiple locations and Preakness night steamed crabs not far from where I grew up in Baltimore, it was another fascinating, if frustrating, Preakness.
After a wonderful Preakness Day afternoon (thankfully in Pimlico’s air conditioned Triple Crown Room) hanging with Jeff Matty, Dani Gibson Trish Bowman and California friends Bob Ike and Marc Doche (making their first visit to Pimlico), the Preakness itself taught and re-taught me several valuable lessons – owner Seth Klarman and trainer Chad Brown may be the sharpest combination in the sport, in-race aggressiveness almost always is better than passiveness and everything you thought was true can change in an instant.
After a brilliant Kentucky Derby performance where he did everything but win the race, I thought Epicenter was a cinch in the Preakness. I had a great mental picture of how the race would be run. Early Voting and Armagnac, ridden by Jose and Irad Ortiz respectively, would be 1-2 in some order as the field hit the first turn. Epicenter would be sitting third.
A loose-on-the-lead Early Voting was my biggest concern. Early Voting had enough points to run in the Derby, but Klarman and Brown opted to pass and await the Preakness. What looked like a smart move at the time turned out even smarter when the Derby had a meltdown pace which would almost certainly have crushed Early Voting’s chances.
So Early Voting had six weeks of rest, early speed, a terrific jockey in Jose Ortiz and that great owner/trainer combination trying to repeat a pattern that had worked perfectly in 2017 with Preakness winner Cloud Computing.
Even with all that, I just thought Epicenter was faster. I always thought that Epicenter and jockey Joel Rosario very likely would be putting race pressure on Early Voting on the backstretch or at least by the far turn.
Everything changed in the first 100 yards of the race. Armagnac actually cleared the field, with Early Voting a clear second. Epicenter, inexplicably, was eighth of nine, with only the filly Secret Oath behind him.
Instead of being aggressive and fighting for position, Rosario let slower horses get ahead of him while not asking Epicenter for speed. When I saw that developing, I knew immediately Epicenter was in trouble. It got even worse when I saw the early fractions – 24.32, 47.44. Epicenter was behind slow horses in slow fractions with the only danger in my mind right off the lead after those slow fractions.
Rosario did get Epicenter a nice trip on pretty live rail, but the damage had already been done. A horse with serious speed was behind no hopers like Happy Jack and Fenwick as well as a horse with no speed, Skippylongstocking.
Anybody who bet on Epicenter could not have been pleased. Certainly, the colt’s trainer Steve Asmussen was not pleased. In fact, after Early Voting parlayed that great early position into a big second turn move that gave him a jump on any would be closers to win by 1 1/4 lengths and Epicenter had closed heroically for a second, the trainer said: “Disappointed, you know what I mean? Where he was early and they go 24 and 1. He just left him way too much to do…I was past surprised…You’ve got to leave the gates to have any position whatsoever.’’
The Pimlico surface Saturday was slower than the Churchill Downs surface on Derby Day, but not that much slower. As David Grening of “Daily Racing Form’’ pointed out, Epicenter was 6 1/2 lengths behind a 45.36 half in the Derby, 7 1/2 lengths behind a 47.44 half in the Preakness.
It was, plain and simple, jockey error. A horse with Epicenter’s speed can’t be that far back, especially when the main competition is cruising around near the front unimpeded.
It’s certainly possible Early Voting would have fought off an early challenge from Epicenter. Clearly, Early Voting, in just his fourth lifetime start, with those connections, had to be considered capable of a third straightforward move, a move that he demonstrated with a Preakness win and a career-best 105 Beyer Figure.
But would Early Voting have run that well if Epicenter had brought the heat leaving the backstretch when the Preakness is often decided? Would Early Voting have held up if a horse with Epicenter’s talent and resolve had put that pressure on at the critical time in the race?
We will never know. What we do know is that Epicenter’s best chance was compromised by what happened early, not by what happened late.
Bottom line, Early Voting is the 2022 Preakness winner, another offspring of Gun Runner with a Grade I win, adding his name to a list that includes 2-year-old filly champion Echo Zulu, Arkansas Derby winner Cyberknife, and Santa Anita Derby winner Taiba.
As for Epicenter, he is quickly becoming this year’s Hot Rod Charlie, Louisiana Derby winners that became hard-luck losers of two Triple Crown races. HRC finally got his Grade I in the Pennsylvania Derby. Hopefully, Epicenter comes to Parx in September with a Grade I by then.
As for the TC series, as Jay Privman of DRF pointed out, this will be the first time since 1954 that a healthy Derby winner did not go to the Preakness and a healthy Preakness winner won’t be going to the Belmont Stakes.
Derby winner Rich Strike is scheduled to run in the Belmont. Early Voting and Epicenter are off the Triple Crown trail, pointing to races like the Haskell, Travers and, hopefully, the Pa. Derby.
And I am left to wonder what might have happened to my Epicenter/Creative Minister exacta if the race had been run as I expected. Would that exacta still have been second and third? I will never know, but I would have liked to have found out.