A Midsummer Derby’s Dream

The story of this year’s Travers Stakes goes back nearly three-quarters of a century to a converted Saddlebred farm in rural Western Kentucky that is now a close-knit family run operation.~ Steve Haskin

A Midsummer Derby’s Dream

By Steve Haskin

I normally avoid interjecting myself into a column unless I considered myself an integral part of the story, whether it is through my memory of a particular time period or an event or though tributes to my wife, daughter, and father. But I am going to make an exception this time because it is a very brief intrusion and caught me by surprise as I was preparing to tell the story of the 2022 Travers Stakes.

As a member of the Hall of Fame Historic Review Committee I strongly campaigned for several years to get My Juliet inducted and finally succeeded in 2019. It was a great thrill to be at the induction ceremony and hear her jockey Tony Black thank me, although no thanks were needed. I was merely trying to keep history in proper perspective and reward an amazing filly who deserved to be enshrined.

My Juliet was bred by J.R. Bettersworth at his one-time Saddlebred farm in Bowling Green, located in Western Kentucky, far removed from the state’s leading breeding farms in Lexington. Rex Ladd broke My Juliet at tiny Fonner Park in Nebraska, where she made her second start for Bettersworth before being sold to George Weasel for $50,000. She would go on to win 24 of her 36 starts, defeating Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Bold Forbes in the Vosburgh Stakes and finishing ahead of Preakness winner Master Derby in the Omaha Gold Cup.

Bettersworth’s grandson, Mike Harris, was in high school at the time and remembered My Juliet very well. He and his brothers Brent and Kevin eventually took over the operation and did business under the name Bettersworth Westwind Farms. With Mike’s sons Tyler and Justin and daughter Chelsea, who is married and has two children, it is truly a family operation. Of the farm’s 1,000 acres, 300 is for the horses and the rest is leased to a neighbor who grows soybeans, corn, and wheat. That is where they get all their straw, raise their own alfalfa and mix their own feed. In short, they do pretty much everything themselves.

Over the years, Westwind Farms bred several top-class horses, but it wasn’t until 2019, the same year they saw My Juliet inducted into the Hall of Fame and 47 years after their great filly was born that they bred their next potential champion, a bay colt by Not This Time eventually to be named Epicenter, who after tough defeats in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness has now vaulted to the head of the 3-year-old class with impressive victories in the Jim Dandy and Travers, the latter an emphatic 5 ¼-length drubbing of most of the leading 3-year-olds in the country.

For the Harris family, Epicenter came along at a time when they needed a major boost, and he gave it to them at the Keeneland September yearling sale.

“He was a special colt from the get-go,” Mike Harris said. “He was a well-balanced individual with a gorgeous walk. He wasn’t real big but he was very athletic and by June of his yearling year his butt was nice and broad and he had filled out in all the right places. But the best thing about him was his intelligence. He was very smart. A lot of young horses will get scared at little things that surprise them. He would just go up to something new and sniff it and that was it. Nothing bothered him. He was just so easy to handle.”

So when they consigned him to the Keeneland September yearling sale, along with two other horses, they knew they were bringing over a colt who was going to appeal to buyers.

“The pressure was on,” Harris said. “We’re just a family run farm and we had a run of bad luck for a couple of years. We had him in Book 3 and the other two in Book 2. We had a $125,000 reserve on him and were confident he’d bring over $100,000. But that was a Covid year and the foreign buyers didn’t show up. When we had to buy the first two yearlings back after they failed to meet their reserve we started to panic and lowered his reserve to $75,000.

“Because there were so few handlers there that year my son led him into the ring. He wound up selling for $260,000, which made him the highest-priced yearling we ever sold. When my son led him back out I met him and we both had tears in our eyes. We had been struggling at the time and he pulled us out.”

Harris was thrilled when he learned the colt had been been purchased by Ron Winchell, who had owned Tapit, Gun Runner, Midnight Bourbon, Untapable, and so many other top-class horses, and would be trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen.

“Steve originally flagged him and we ran him though the rest of our team,” Winchell said. “He was a standout all the way around.”

Harris then told Winchell something that surprised and delighted him. “What was ironic is that Ron Winchell owns part of Kentucky Downs, which is located in Bowling Green, about 20 miles from our farm,” Harris said. “He didn’t realize the colt he had just bought had been born and raised right here in Bowling Green close to the racetrack he is part owner of.”

After breaking his maiden impressively going a flat mile at Churchill Downs in late November, 2021, Epicenter burst onto the Kentucky Derby scene with a rousing 6 ½-length victory in of all races the Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds. He kept learning and improving and developing physically just as Mike Harris thought he would, and following a head defeat in the Lecomte Stakes when he got a bit rank fighting for the lead he scored impressive victories in the Risen Star Stakes and Louisiana Derby by 2 ¾ and 2 ½ lengths, respectively.

Then on April 17, about three weeks before the Derby, the Winchell and Asmussen team suffered a devastating gut punch when their classy and gutsy colt Midnight Bourbon died suddenly at Churchill Downs from “acute gastrointestinal distress.”

“That was definitely a sad and tough loss on so many levels,” Winchell said.

That was followed by tough second-place finishes by Epicenter in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness. In the Derby he apparently had the race won nearing the sixteenth pole, holding off the charge of the Blue Grass winner Zandon after being close to brutal factions when an 80-1 shot named Rich Strike came charging up inside him and snatched victory by three-quarters of a length. This was eerily similar to the way the Midnight Bourbon would run his guts out only to find a way to lose in deep stretch.

“The Derby was a tough beat,” Winchell said. “Epicenter was so prepared and ready for a top performance. It’s a tough one to accept. But I don’t want to take anything away from the winner.”

Mike Harris admits he was torn watching the race. “On one hand we were happy to have bred the post-time favorite for the Kentucky Derby and he ran a great second,“ he said. “But on the other hand it was tough seeing him run into a suicidal pace and still open up by daylight approaching the eighth pole and then get caught in the final yards. But we were very proud of him”

Then in the Preakness it looked like Epicenter’s hind end slipped a little coming out of the gate and he quickly lost all position. Joel Rosario chose not be aggressive and move him into position and he ran into more traffic problems, dropping back to eighth in the nine-horse field. He rallied through more traffic along the inside, but had no chance to catch Early Voting, again having to settle for second.

After a brief layoff during which he grew stronger mentally and physically, he returned in the 1 1/8-mile Jim Dandy Stakes as prep for the historic Travers. When he was taken back to fourth in the four-horse field it looked like the Preakness all over again. Had he lost that sharp tactical speed he had shown earlier in the year? But when Joel Rosario asked him he accelerated, swung to the outside and drew off from Zandon, Tawny Port, and Early Voting to win by 1 ½ lengths in the solid time of 1:48 4/5.

“I’m just happy he got to show his talent without any outside variables,” Winchell said after the race. “I think he’s learning how to win at the wire, which is what Gun Runner finally learned in his last year.”

Epicenter was now the favorite for the Travers and was one race away from taking over the top spot in the 3-year-old division. But Winchell couldn’t help but think back to last year’s Travers when Midnight Bourbon ran his heart out down the stretch only to get beat a neck by eventual 3-year-old champion Essential Quality.

“I thought about Midnight Bourbon many times leading up to this year’s Travers and watched his race several times,” Winchell said. “It was like he had left us with unfinished business. I thought his Travers was one of his best races and his toughest loss. That was probably one of my toughest losses ever until Epicenter’s Derby. It was hard to put that one into words.”

It wasn’t hard to put Epicenter’s Travers into words. All you need are the stats. He got bet down to even-money favorite and blew his field away after finally getting a perfect trip, winning by 5 ¼ lengths in 2:00 3/5, the fourth fastest time in the history of the race, which was first run during the Civil War. It was also the second fastest time in the last 43 years.

“I couldn’t have dreamt a better way for Epicenter to run in the Travers,” Winchell said. “Rarely do you feel comfortable throughout a race in regard to where you are and how you’re going. Between where he was placed and the fractions (:23 1/5, :47 3/5, and 1:11 2/5) he always seemed to be well within himself. He somehow avoided all traffic and showed dominance over the field with little effort. Races like this are hard to win, and we couldn’t be more proud of him.”

Epicenter’s performance did not come as a big surprise to the Asmussen barn. “He has developed physically so much this summer at Saratoga,” said assistant trainer Scott Blasi. “He’s put on a lot of muscle and even after the Jim Dandy he still moved forward. He’s an elite talent. Like Curlin and Gun Runner he makes you believe in him. He can accelerate and put himself in position at any point in the race. By winning the Travers he’s done something for us no horse has been able to do.”

But in the end the Travers is about tradition, which makes winning it all the more gratifying. “To have your name on that cup is very special,” Asmussen said. “What Saratoga means to American racing and what the Travers means to Saratoga, I want to help paint the canoe. For Epicenter to have competed in the Derby and Preakness and still have this much horse now, we’re extremely proud of that.”

For Mike Harris and his family, they should be reaping the rewards of Epicenter’s Travers victory for quite a while. At this year’s Keeneland November breeding stock sale they will be selling the colt’s dam Silent Candy, who is in foal to Epicenter’s sire Not This Time, which means the buyer will be getting the dam and eventually a full brother to the Travers winner. The family will also be selling Epicenter’s half-brother, by Tapiture, at the Keeneland September yearling sale.

Unlike Ron Winchell, who had a “thorough celebration” after the Travers, Mike Harris spent that evening with his family, who came over to watch the race. It was him and his wife Susan, his son Justin and his wife Alex and their two girls (Blake, 4, and June, 1,), his son Tyler, and his daughter Chelsea and her husband Terence and their daughter Harper (7), and son, Noah (2). This was the second major chapter in the legacy left by his grandfather some 70 years ago that has culminated with the Hall of Fame induction of My Juliet in 2019 and continuing with a victory in the historic Travers Stakes and a possible championship.

While Richard Dreyfuss in the movie “Let it Ride” uttered his now famous closing line at the racetrack after winning the final race by a nose, Mike Harris was grilling hamburgers with his family when the same words came to him: “I’m having a very good day.”

Photos courtesy of the New York Racing Association, Blood-Horse Library, and Christian Hansen.


Signup for the newsletter For new announcements, merchandise updates and other excitement here at, please enter your email address in the popup window. Our mailing list is never sold or viewed by anyone other than