Near-record heat for Preakness Stakes another test for Epicenter

By Stephen Whyno
Associated Press

Baltimore — Epicenter lost the Kentucky Derby because of a hot pace.

Now he’ll face hot temperatures in the Preakness.

Two weeks after getting passed by 80-1 long shot Rich Strike just before the finish line at the Derby, Epicenter goes into Saturday’s Preakness as the favorite and clearly the class of the nine-horse field. In a race without Rich Strike and no chance at a Triple Crown, there is still some buzz largely because of filly Secret Oath and that it will be a test of whether Epicenter can beat the heat that could approach a record high.

“You handle what you have control over and put yourself in the best position possible and try to eliminate as many variables that could get in the way of that,” Epicenter trainer Steve Asmussen said. “If it’s actually 95, 96 degrees here, and we know it can be pretty sticky when it gets warm in Baltimore, so I think that all of them are going to have to deal with that.

“He’s a big horse turning back in 14 days, so just make sure he’s drinking plenty of water and hydrated, just like your kids.”

Epicenter enters Saturday’s Preakness as the favorite and clearly the class of the nine-horse field.

The National Weather Service is forecasting a high of 94 degrees Fahrenheit for Saturday afternoon, with just a slight dip before the 7:01 p.m. EDT post time for the 147th running of the Preakness. The record is 96, set in 1934 when High Quest won the race.

Epicenter is the morning line 6-5 favorite to join that list of Preakness winners after finishing a tough-luck second in the Derby. Even after owner Rick Dawson decided not to run Rich Strike at Pimlico Race Course to take a swing at an unlikely Triple Crown, his upset at Churchill Downs was still the talk of the week, especially for those around the horse who was cruising to victory until he wasn’t.

“Even my 6-year-old after the race, he looked at me and said, ‘Daddy, Epicenter ran the best race,’” Epicenter owner Ron Winchell said. “He ran a great race, so the confidence level is great. But with any big race, you just hope you show up and run, and so I think if he shows up and runs, we’re in a good position.”

Kenny McPeek, who won the 2020 Preakness with filly Swiss Skydiver, called Epicenter “definitely the horse to beat” and said the favorite would likely need to regress for his grey 10-1 shot Creative Minister to finish first. But he and co-majority owner Greg Back felt confident enough to pony up $150,000 to enter him in the race.

McPeek told Back if Creative Minister won his race on the Derby undercard, “We’ll run him anywhere you want to run him — the moon if you want.” He was fast enough to show evidence he belonged in the company of the other Preakness horses.

“What is it Wayne Gretzky said? You never make a shot you don’t take,” McPeek said. “That’s the fun of the sport. … If you feel like you’ve got a legitimate chance to just hit the board, you can’t be scared because a lot happens.”

A lot would have to happen for 50-1 long shot Fenwick to pull off another Triple Crown shocker and slightly less for 30-1 Happy Jack, who finished 14th in the Derby, or 20-1 Skippylongstocking to win the $1.65 million, 1 3/16-mile Preakness. There’s plenty of respect for the chances of 6-1 Simplification, who was fourth in the Derby, as well as 7-2 second choice on the morning line Early Voting.

But the most chatter around the Preakness is about Secret Oath, the winner of the Kentucky Oaks, who 86-year-old Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas is betting can beat the boys. Absent the Derby winner — the fourth consecutive year there’s no real chance at a Triple Crown at the Preakness — the focus is on the filly in what Lukas called an otherwise vanilla race.

“If you don’t have the filly in here, the mood is zilch,” said Lukas, who is going for a record-tying seventh Preakness victory. “The filly made this at least have a little bit of interest.”

McPeek was glad it felt like “old times” at the Preakness, especially after it was run in October two years ago with no fans in the stands. He fondly recalled his first trip to Baltimore in 1995, when Lukas was in his heyday.

“I’ve put a few miles on since then and a few belt loops are missing and I’ve shaved my head since then, but Wayne’s still here,” McPeek said. “Where’s Bob?”

Bob, of course, is two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert, whose absence at Pimlico is jarring after years in the spotlight. Currently serving a suspension in Kentucky for medication violations that’s being honored by Maryland and other states, he wasn’t allowed to enter horses in the Derby or Preakness.

But he does have a presence in 12-1 late entry Armagnac, whom Baffert trained and saddled in three races before transferring him to former assistant Tim Yakteen. After Taiba finished 12th and Messier 15th in the Derby with Baffert’s shadow hanging over the race, there’s less pressure this time.

“I’m trying to get under the radar,” Yakteen said. “I enjoyed the Derby. I wish we would’ve had a different outcome.”

Winchell, Asmussen and Epicenter jockey Joel Rosario feel the same way after turning for home under the twin spires at Churchill Downs thinking they’d won the Kentucky Derby.

“That was very, very exciting at that point,” Rosario said. “What can I say? The horse had run really well. It would’ve been really great if we could’ve won that, but that’s how it goes sometimes.”

Concerned about the heat and disappointed he’s not getting another opportunity to beat Rich Strike, Asmussen isn’t worried about positioning at the Preakness as long as Epicenter is “in front at the wire.” He shares his owner’s confidence but is a bit more wary about expressing it after the crushing Derby defeat.

“It was, I believe, the longest shot on the board that actually won the race,” he said, “so you can’t count anybody out.”