STEVE Asmussen took the two feature races at Fair Grounds last week with a colt and filly bound for the Kentucky Derby and Oaks.
The Grade 2 Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby saw Asmussen’s favourite Epicenter cement his position at the head of the Kentucky Derby qualifying lists with a two-and-a-half-length win in a new track record time for the nine and a half furlongs.
The three-year-old son of Not This Time raced in third early under Rosario before he was angled out in the stretch and overhauled pacesetting Zozos in a track-record 1m54.38secs.
The Louisiana Derby’s 100 qualifying points to the winner gives Epicenter a leaderboard-topping total of 164 points.
Runner-up Zozos also likely has enough overall points (40) to make the 20-horse Derby field.
Just two winners of the Louisiana Derby have gone on to score in the Kentucky Derby: Black Gold in 1924, and Grindstone in 1996.
The Louisiana Derby was the third stakes win of this Fair Grounds meet for Epicenter, who won the Gun Runner Stakes December and the Grade 2 Risen Star Stakes in February.
His only defeat came in the Grade 3 Lecomte Stakes, when he set a hot pace and was caught by Call Me Midnight who took him on again on Saturday but could not keep pace. He has won four of his last five races his only unplaced effort coming on his debut at Churchill Downs last season.
Rosario allowed his mount to settle when Zozos and Pioneer of Medina went forward leaving the starting gate.
Asked for effort entering the stretch, Epicenter quickly overtook the leaders, to take command.
“He took a little dirt today and he didn’t mind it. Not only is he a nice horse, but he also tries very hard. He was off the pace today and inside of horses. The way he did it today, the mile and a quarter (of the Derby) shouldn’t be a problem,” Rosario reported.
Epicenter was a $260,000 Keeneland September purchase by Winchell Thoroughbred and took his earnings with Saturday’s victory.
“I feel that he’s made some great progress over the winter. He’s done so good over the surface here at the Fair Grounds this winter and his physical development,” Asmussen said.
“He’s got a mile and an eighth in him, front-running win, and then today, a little bit off the pace going a mile and three-sixteenths in a very solid time. It gives us just a tremendous amount of confidence in going into the Kentucky Derby.”
Zulu still unbeaten
The unbeaten Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Echo Zulu made an impression on her trainer as she took the Grade 2 Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks at odds of 1/9.
“She’s a worthy champion. And just a blessing to be around. I’m emotional because of how wonderful it is to be a part of it. Everything she did for us last year,” he told BloodHorse.
Easy winner of her four starts, the daughter of Gun Runner had to dig deep to repel a challenge from Hidden Connection in the final strides of the Fair Grounds Oaks. She prevailed by a nose, keeping her flawless record intact and is on top of the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard with 130 points.
Echo Zulu led from the gates under regular pilot Joel Rosario. Turnerloose, winner of the Rachel Alexandra Stakes here, followed with Hidden Connection and Favor in third and fourth position to a quarter mile in 47.68 seconds.
Hidden Connection ran wide into the straight, but charged after Echo Zulu, and Joel Rosario went to work on the tiring leader inside the furlong pole, as she fought to maintain her advantage.
Echo Zulu inched out Hidden Connection by a nose, in a fast 1m 42.69 for a miles and half a furlong on a fast track.
“(Echo Zulu) got a little tired but she got the job done. She’s a tremendous horse. She’s a fighter and she likes to run,” Rosario said.
The unbeaten filly cost Winchell Thoroughbreds $300,000 at Keeneland September in 2020.
Both trial winners shipped to Churchill Downs on Tuesday. There are two more 100 points to the winner trials this evening.