The Breeders’ Cup Classic is North America’s premier year-end championship race. Held at 1 ¼ mile on the dirt, it is a chance for the best horses in the most prominent division to make their claim as Horse of the Year.
The race is open to males and females, but as with most equine competition, it is largely dominated by colts and geldings.
This event often serves as a battle ground for different generations of equine athletes, as three-year-olds square off against their older counterparts. Veterans of the Triple Crown trail, as well as late blooming three-year-olds just coming to prominence, test their mettle in the Breeders’ Cup against seasoned opponents from the handicap division, often for the first time.
Of the 38 runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, one was won by a mare (Zenyatta, 2009). The remaining 37 have seen 24 victories by older males and 13 by three-year-old males. There is undeniably an advantage for the older horses, but among the three-year-old victors are some of the great racehorses of modern times: Sunday Silence, Tiznow, and American Pharoah, to name a few.
According to TwinSpires odds, this year’s standout three-year-old is Epicenter, a Steven Asmussen trainee whose 2024 victories include the Grade II Risen Star Stakes, the Grade II Louisiana Derby, the Grade II Jim Dandy Stakes, and most notably, the Grade I Travers Stakes.
The latter victory has, as of this writing, solidified his position atop the three-year-old males. Is that enough, however, to give him the edge in the Breeders’ Cup Classic?
At first glance, Epicenter’s breeding does not appear to scream 1 ¼ miles on the dirt. His sire, Not This Time, never ran beyond 1 1/16th miles, and his dam, Silent Candy, ran her best race when Grade III-placed on the turf.
Going beyond the surface, however, a different story unfolds. While it is true that Not This Time was never victorious at classic distances, that is simply because he never got the chance to try them, having been retired after his runner-up effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He had come into the race with a victory in the 1 1/16 mile Grade III Iroquois Stakes, which he won by 8 ¾ lengths after a poor start. As well, Not This Time is a son of legendary stamina source Giants Causeway. Although we will never know for sure, it seems likely that had he raced on, Not This Time would have fared well at longer distances.
Silent Candy is a daughter of Candy Ride, an Argentine champion who became known in America for his impressive victory in the 2003 Grade I Pacific Classic, held at 1 ¼ miles on the dirt. He is the sire of Breeders’ Cup Classic and Dubai World Cup winner Gun Runner, who himself has become a successful sire, producing fellow top three-year-olds (and vanquished Travers opponents) Cyberknife and Early Voting.
Looking past the first generation, it appears that Epicenter does indeed have a pedigree that supports 1 ¼ miles, but what does Epicenter himself think about the distance?
Thus far in his career, Epicenter has run two 1 ¼ mile races, resulting in a runner-up effort and a win.
The second place result was, famously, Epicenter’s run in the Kentucky Derby. Heavily favored going into the race, Epicenter seemed poised to give Steve Asmussen, the all-time winningest Thoroughbred trainer, his first Kentucky Derby victory. However, no one anticipated the outcome of the race.
Summer Is Tomorrow, Crown Pride, and Messier were known to be fast, but few thought that they would set the fastest opening fractions in Derby history. The sizzling pace up front set the race up perfectly for deep closers like eventual winner Rich Strike and third-place finisher Zandon.
Only one horse who ran in the first half of the pack during the opening mile was still around to make an impact in the stretch, and that was Epicenter, who had advanced from 8th to 5th by the ¾ pole, and hit the lead at the head of the stretch. He held off Zandon’s late challenge but was blindsided by Rich Strike, who had coasted along the rail.
Was Epicenter a victim of the distance, the pace, or simply a horse who had a better day? Those questions remained after Epicenter finished second, again as the favorite, in the Preakness Stakes. He returned to his winning ways in the Jim Dandy, but it wasn’t until the Travers that his fans would finally be vindicated.
The 2024 Travers had a small field, but one that was very deep with talent. Rich Strike was back, having skipped the Preakness, finished unplaced in the Belmont, and then trained up to the Travers. The Grade I Haskell Stakes winner, Cyberknife, was looking sharp after his race. Epicenter’s Jim Dandy foes, Early Voting and Zandon, were there, along with newcomers Artorius, Ain’t Life Grand, and Gilded Age.
Epicenter lay just behind the leaders for the opening stages of the race, running fourth by about two lengths. Cyberknife, who set the pace ahead of Ain’t Life Grand and Early Voting, set sensible fractions, a contrast to what was seen in the Kentucky Derby. At the head of the stretch, Epicenter was urged to make his move, and he smoothly strode past the leaders. Never seriously challenged, he ran home under a hand ride by 5 ¼ lengths, firmly sealing his reputation as a 1 ¼ mile horse.
Unlike many of his opponents, Epicenter has true tactical speed and versatility. His first stakes win of 2024, the Risen Star Stakes, was a gate-to-wire victory in which no horse got within a length of him. His Jim Dandy victory was the result of laying several lengths off the pace in last, behind even noted closer Zandon.
Three horses have defeated Epicenter in 2024: Call Me Midnight in the Grade III Lecomte Stakes, Rich Strike in the Kentucky Derby, and Early Voting in the Preakness. All of those horses have gone on to face Epicenter at least once more, and each time, Epicenter handily defeated them. This shows that Epicenter’s human connections, and perhaps even Epicenter himself, are able to adapt enough not to make the same mistakes multiple times.
While it is difficult to judge how Epicenter will fare in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, seeing as he will train up to the race without the benefit of a prep against older horses, there is no reason to leave this talented three-year-old off your Classic ticket. His breeding, versatility, and performance at the distance all point to Epicenter being a very viable Breeders’ Cup Classic contender.