Early Voting holds off favorite Epicenter to win Preakness Stakes
By Joe Drape
Let’s call it a correction in the horse-racing market.
Two weeks after a late entry named Rich Strike unleashed a rail-skimming, swerving stretch run that anyone who’s had a few can appreciate to win the Kentucky Derby at impossible 80-1 odds, order was restored.
Early Voting, a colt owned by billionaire hedge fund investor Seth Klarman, repelled the challenge of the heavily favored Epicenter to capture the 147th running of the Preakness Stakes.
Early Voting won with a time of 1:54.54 and 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Epicenter.
Granted, the colt’s victory was not as compelling as the Derby winner’s.
Rich Strike was the only horse in training for his owner, Rick Dawson. His trainer, Eric Reed, ships his horses from his modest farm in Lexington, Kentucky, to backwater tracks in Ohio, Indiana and West Virginia, where the ding, ding, ding of slot machines provides the soundtrack for low-budget horse dramas.
His jockey? Sonny Leon. Don’t worry if the name is not familiar; seasoned horseplayers were barely familiar with the 32-year-old Venezuelan.
Still, it was not like Early Voting’s victory was totally void of warm and fuzzy. Klarman was celebrating his 65th birthday and grew up three blocks from Baltimore’s Pimlico Race Course, a blistered monument to the sepia age of horse racing.
After all, the hard-knocking Seabiscuit gave hope to Depression-era Americans when he upset 1937 Triple Crown champion War Admiral, owned by one of the titans of the turf, Sam Riddle, in a match race.
Seabiscuit was a victory for the proletariat. Early Voting’s win was a tribute to a sound business plan executed by a team of thoroughbred racing’s blue bloods whose owner, at least, pays attention to the pulse of U.S. politics.
The name Early Voting was a call to arms. A registered independent whose values leaned Republican, Klarman became disenchanted with President Donald Trump and the GOP and gave generously to Democratic candidates and causes before the 2020 elections in the hope that a Democratic majority might “act as a check and balance” to the Trump administration.
The colt’s trainer, Chad Brown, on the other hand, answers to the siren song of commerce. He has hundreds of horses in his care provided by enough well-heeled owners to make him a four-time Eclipse Award champion trainer.
For his part, Early Voter’s jockey, Jose Ortiz, along with his brother Irad, are perennially among the top 10 riders in the nation. He has been aboard Early Voting for each of his three previous starts and knew he had a gift horse.
“We always knew he was very talented, but we knew he was going to be a late developer,” Ortiz said.
And Klarman, who got rich and famous as a value investor, applied those principles to win the middle jewel of the Triple Crown. He had the foresight and iron will to resist the lure of the Derby.
With only three starts, two of them victories, Klarman told Brown that Early Voting was not ready to face 20 horses and the mayhem of America’s most famous race.
“They had an option to run in the Derby and passed,” said Ortiz, wiping away tears in the moment after the race. “It’s very hard to get a winner to pass on the Derby, and they made a right choice by the horse.”
When Dawson and Reed decided their colt needed more than two weeks’ rest and chose to skip the Preakness to run in the Belmont Stakes on June 11, Klarman, Brown and Ortiz took advantage of the fundamentals presented them.
The trainer and owner followed a similar path to win the 2017 Preakness with Cloud Computing, a similarly lightly raced colt who offered more promise than performance at that point in his career but delivered.
Team Early Voting, however, changed tactics to ensure the victory. The colt had never really sat behind horses, preferring to steal to the front like a cat burglar and dare authorities to run him down.
Not on Saturday. Early Voting and Ortiz stalked the early pacesetter Armagnac as unhurried as a museumgoer on a Sunday afternoon.
In the clubhouse, Brown was even more placid as his colt loped through tepid fractions of 24.32 for a quarter-mile and 47.44 for a half-mile.
“Honestly, I was never worried,” Brown said. “Once we had a good target, I actually preferred that. We were fine to go to the lead but I thought down the backside it was going to take a good horse to beat us.”
And a couple of good ones, indeed, took up the challenge. Filly Secret Oath spun wide and rushed up around the turn like she was being launched by a hammer thrower giving his all.
She had won the Kentucky Oaks the day before the Derby and for a dozen exhilarating seconds looked like she was en route to becoming the seventh filly to run past the opposite sex in the Preakness. Alas, she spun her wheels in the stretch and finished fourth.
Her 86-year-old Hall of Fame trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, knew it.
“The fractions being slow like that, it was hard to run down,” Lukas said. “She flattened out.”
Inside, Epicenter, the Derby runner-up, was hugging the rail like a life vest and spurted into contention like he had flippers on. On the first Saturday of May, Rich Strike ran by Epicenter, who had chased a wickedly fast pace, leaving the colt’s trainer, Steve Asmussen, flabbergasted but accepting.
After the race Saturday, Asmussen was clearly miffed at his rider, reigning Eclipse Award-winning champion jockey Joel Rosario, who he believed was derelict in his duties by not challenging Early Voting earlier with Epicenter’s early speed.
“He gave him too much to do,” Asmussen said. “Then he just buried him there.”
What happens next?
If all goes well, Rich Strike is coming to New York.
But Brown made it clear that he and Early Voting were not interested in participating in class warfare with Rich Strike three weeks from now in the Belmont Stakes. He and Klarman are taking their more than $900,000 first-place check and going home.
Instead, he is aiming his colt for the Travers Stake, or Midsummer Derby, in Saratoga Springs, New York, in late August. That’s good with Klarman. He did not find success overextending his assets on Wall Street or on the racetrack.
Five years ago, he celebrated his 60th at Pimlico with Cloud Computing. Once again, he rang in his 65th in his own neighborhood.
“See you in five years,” he said.