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.


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263 Responses to “A Midsummer Derby’s Dream”

  1. Matthew W says:

    I saw the Cave Rock team work….not all that fast—it looked GOOD. ..

  2. TommyMc says:

    Flavien Prat won the finale at Saratoga which tied him with Luis Saez for 2nd place in the standings behind Irad Ortiz. Prat won at 20% for the Saratoga meeting. Not the 27% that he used to win at in California, but, pretty darn good against the best riders in the country. Most importantly, Prat has “got his foot in the door” with some really good stables: Chad Brown, Todd Pletcher, Brad Cox, Christophe Clement, and even Steve Asmussen. Of course, Prat has his “Ace in the Hole”, Flightline.

    • Matthew W says:

      Prat was the only rider at Saratoga with a positive ROI on dirt…and a positive ROI on turf…..which means if you gbet him to win in all of his races you would have finished with profit….the morning line maker compiled those stats as of Aug 25th, and promised to have numbers for the complete meeting presently….Prat in the last couple of weeks did so well…his ROI could only have been larger…what surprised me was how low Irad was, on dirt …as of Aug 25th he was 10th, on dirt, with a stunning $1.00 ROI, meaning if you bet him to win every dirt race you would have lost 50% of your moolah. ….in fairness, it’s hard for the #1 rider to get a profitable ROI, as they ride so many low prices..

  3. TommyMc says:

    Well, that BC Future Wager finally closed. Late money on Olympiad drove Flightline’s price up to 4-5. Epicenter 7-1. Both Olympiad and Life Is Good at 8-1. I know that Express Train has his fans. He closed at 99-1. Which is as high the tote shows. By my calculations, Express Train is closer to 170-1.

    Flightline, Epicenter, Life Is Good, and Olympiad are the only ones under 10-1. In fact, all other betting interests are 30-1 or better. Not much betting action on anyone other than the top four horses.

  4. Bill Dawson says:

    Forte, by Violence, out of a Blame mare, looked super impressive in winning the G1 Hopeful, going 7 furlongs in 1:22 and change, on an off track.
    It would appear that he should have no problem going long. He’s a real beauty, with a coat that just gleams.
    He could be the best 2yr. old in the Pletcher barn, time will tell.

  5. TommyMc says:

    With less than an hour until the Breeders Cup Future Wager closes at 6pm, Flightline is holding at 3-5. I know he’s a “super-horse”, but, what if Keenland comes up muddy on November 5th? Has the SuperStar ever set foot on anything less than a “fast” track? I know that I sound like a “Negative Nelly”, but, I wouldn’t bet on Secretariat in a Future Wagering Pool at 3-5 for a race that’s still just shy of 9 weeks away. So many things can happen.

    Would the connections of Flightline even run him on an “off-track”? He might be too valuable.

    Where do you go after a 126 BSF? Faster? Has any horse ever run two BSFs over 120? I don’t think so. Does Flightline regress? More than likely. If so, enough to let Life Is Good or Epicenter into the race? Like I typed into my keyboard yesterday, Ghostzapper won his next 2 races in 2004 after his 128 BSF. I have no idea what kind of numbers he ran in those races though. Is there any sport better than horseracing? It’s so darn interesting.

    • Nelson Maan says:

      After 128 on a sloppy track, Ghostzapper got 114 in the Woodward, 124 in the BCC and 122 in the Metropolitan his last race…

      • Liam says:

        Thanks for providing the BSF speed figures. I’m curious to see number Flightline received from Thor-o-graph?

      • TommyMc says:

        That’s amazing. I’m very impressed that you found those numbers. So, Ghostzapper cracked 120 three times. I don’t think that I’ve ever fully appreciated Ghostzapper. He should be considered one of the greats of the game.

  6. TommyMc says:

    I was just looking at next Saturday’s card at Kentucky Downs. I hope it doesn’t get rained out. 12 races. Every one with 10 runners or more. Most with the maximum 12 along with 4 also-eligibles. Purses over $6million(apparently 2 of the purses are being bumped up because Grade I winners were entered). Most of the top jockeys and trainers will be there(I don’t think I saw Luis Saez). It’s going to be a handicapping nightmare with the turf likely “soft” and rain expected. Some popular horses I noticed: Princess Grace, Wesley Ward’s Arrest Me Red, Arklow, and Gufo(back on short rest-didn’t he just win at Saratoga a couple of weeks ago?). On first look, most of those races look wide open. I even saw some Canadien horses and connections entered.

  7. Matthew W says:

    I understand the economics of the sport, his insurance premiums would be off the charts, would they decide on a five year old campaign (in other words three more races..)….PLEASE… .RUN HIM NEXT YEAR! He might service 100 mares, for 15 years. …he is not going to sire himself! RUN HIM! (please..)..

  8. Matthew W says:

    Del Mar Sat was not souped up fast….I was present, for Bid’s Strub, and that surface WAS fast, but Saturday….Flightline went his second quarter in :22.36, according to prominent Florida handicapper Toby T….from there he made separation, and it was quick…..I’m fortunate to have been present for Bid’s Strub…and Flightline’s Pac Classic, I also got to see his Malibu, where his reins were shook and sayanora….I didn’t see Arrogate, or Skip Away, whom I also thought was great…..but I’m fortunate. ..

  9. Liam says:

    Maiden 2yo races in open company go for purses in the 100k range at Saratoga’s meet. The Grade 1 Hopeful carries a purse of 300k. I’m of the opinion horses of the future should be running for higher purses in Grade 1’s.

  10. Davids says:

    After watching Flightline’s ‘magnus opus’ in the Pacific Classic, half a dozen times, I started thinking back of Spectacular Bid’s walkover in the 1980 Woodward Stakes. Not that this would happen these days with Flightline but why other trainers gave up competing against Spectacular Bid. They had no chance.

    Flightline must look invincible to all the other trainers no matter what they profess to say to the racing media. If you owned Life is Good, arguably the second best horse in the US, would you send him to the Breeders’ Cup Classic and get demolished by the mighty Flightline or send him to the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile with an excellent chance of winning? I know what I’d be doing, running for cover.

    • Discopartner says:

      I think the trainers meant it when they said they’re going to the BCC. I guess they should have checked with you before making their press statements.

      • Davids says:

        The days when I took in what a trainer said to the racing press – hook, line, and sinker – was when I was 5 years old. Lol. Good luck.

        • Discopartner says:

          It’s not that simplistic. They’re giving themselves a chance, that’s what you do when you’re an underdog. I think going after this horse and pressing him might yield results but they have to do it right away.

          • Davids says:

            Yes, that’s fair enough but it’s also quite futile trying to turn a mile – 9f specialist into a competitive 10f runner at the highest level. Especially, when Flightline thrashed Country Grammer by almost 20 lengths in the Pacific Classic on the weekend, the same horse who ran past Life is Good in the 10f, Dubai World Cup in March, 2022.

            At least with Country Grammer, Hot Rod Charlie there are no distance questions on whether 10f is a furlong too far. I haven’t seen any signs of a chink in Flightline’s armor, if anything Flightline shows utter contempt of his opponents. Wouldn’t you rather see Life is Good have a ding dong battle with Jack Christopher in the Dirt Mile than see him being swallowed up in the Breeders’ Cup Classic?

    • Profsdottir says:

      I think there are lots of reasons for other horses to be in the starting gate at the BCC, but perhaps not LIG, because s you wrote he has a very good chance of winning the mile. First, as Steve has reminded us with his columns about Alan Jerkens, even great horses have inexplicably “off” days. It seems unlikely with Flightline, as he doesn’t race often, but it is still possible. More likely is that the rest are running for second money, which in the BCC, is considerable. It will not tarnish a horse’s record to be second to Flightline. If Epicenter runs second, especially within five lengths, he has marked himself as a great horse. Remember that he is just three, and Flightline is four. I think any of the top tier 3YOs could consider running in the Classic for the same reasons. And for the older horses, I go back to my first point. Hitting the Board in the BCC is a big payday, no matter what. I hope I am right, because seeing some version of a walkover will be no fun at all.

      • Davids says:

        Yes, all valid points for Life is Good to run in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I should have been clearer, I think Life is Good is more likely to be off the board than placing in the Breeders’ Cup Classic due to distance limitations and completion. Overall, there seems half a dozen runners who are better equipped to run a better 10f than Life is Good. However, at a mile – 9f, Life is Good would appear only second to Flightline.

        As everyone knows, anything can happen in a race, but securing a win in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile rather than placing, at best, in the Breeders’ Cup Classic seems the positive option. I know Steve Haskin would disagree as he has little time for the Dirt Mile but that’s another debate.

    • TommyMc says:

      I think the Dirt Mile is best for Life Is Good even if Flightline doesn’t run in the BC Classic. That being said, Todd Pletcher doesn’t usually duck anybody. The owners might have a different idea though.

      • TommyMc says:

        I hope we get more than a 6-horse field for the BC Classic.

      • Not sure about that with Pletcher. Andy Beyer was beside himself when Pletcher did not run Liam’s Map against American Pharoah in the BCC. Instead he put him in the mile (he won Beyer was pretty emphatic Liam’s Map could beat AP

        • TommyMc says:

          I remember that. I was a fan of both horses and wanted Liam’s Map to go in the BC Dirt Mile. Todd Pletcher is already in the Hall-of-Fame. Nothing he can do can get him thrown out of there.

        • Davids says:

          Remember Liam’s Map Dirt Mile? He got himself in so much trouble you thought he was going to beat himself but being the champion he was not defeated and broke through with pure grit and determination.

      • Davids says:

        Yes Tommy, that’s how I see it and I agree with both your assumption about Todd Pletcher and the hope that the Breeders’ Cup Classic field is not limited to six runners.

    • Nelson Maan says:

      Interesting take around Flightline’s perceived invincibility. No matter how much I do agree with that impression I also believe that the best horses should meet in the best races. The key is how each trainer defines success. In this exceptional case it could be just trying to fetch the Million Dollar for second place and even the third place will yield $540K (20K more than the pursue for 1st in the Mile).

      The only thin gleam of hope for the other leading horses is that Flightline has not faced a rival as fast as Life is Good. The latter not only has already won the BC mile but also needs to turn the tables on Country Grammar. Life is Good is a proven high-class frontrunner who will be helping the 2022 Classic to be a memorable one (i.e. aiding in a New Track Record) by pushing Flightline a tad during the first 6 furlongs… and, who knows, the Pletcher trainee might even hold for second since there are no other speed horses running at him during the first mile at least…

      I am with you in that Flightline appears to be the surest winner of the BCC since American Pharoah and would like to see the son of Tapit overwhelming the best horses in his steady and unhurried flight to greatness.

      Would Mohammad Ali still be considered the greatest without the great Foreman, Norton, Frazier and Spinks?

      • TommyMc says:

        You left out “The Bayou Bleeder”, Chuck Webner. Just kidding. You make a good point. The best horses should face each other. Do it for the fans if for no other reason.

      • Davids says:

        Well Nelson, first things first. Ha ha It doesn’t matter who Mohammed Ali fought he was the greatest boxer, period.

        I’d rather see a competitive Life is Good Vs Jack Christopher in a scintillating Dirt Mile than see the former being overwhelmed by Flightline then being passed by a handful in the latter stages of the 10f Classic.

        I also remember the 1987 Prix de Diane, it was supposed to be a battle Royal ‘Miesque Vs Indian Skimmer’ and was being promoted as the race of the decade. There was no battle, Indian Skimmer simply waltzed past Miesque as if she wasn’t there – the distance totally favored Indian Skimmer.

        Let’s have two fantastic races come the Breeders’ Cup Festival.

    • Lynda King says:

      To date LIG has a wee bit over 4 million in winnings and a record of 10 starts with 8 wins and 1 show.
      His pedigree and his record have already established him as stallion quality that will mostly result in a very valuable stud deal.
      His ownership invludes China Horse Club and Winstar. As a rule CHC does not keep their horses when their racing career has ended. Winstar may or may not stand him but if not the farm will be very involved in brokering the best deal and will get a handsome return on their investment.
      I agree with Profsdottir. Losing to Flightline in the BCC will not tarnish his record and he places in the top 3 the money will a boost to his earnings.
      CHC has a racing manager and will probably be the one to make the final decision, not Todd.

      • Davids says:

        Lynda, the prize money in the Breeders’ Cup races is simply insignificant compared to stud fees, shares etc when retiring a horse like Life is Good. Everyone gets a piece of the action. Moreover, there isn’t a great difference in prize money between the winning purse of the Dirt Mile or running third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

        If all the consideration is a ‘chance’ at the maximum prize money possible then go for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, if Life is Good runs last then, bad luck. There have been lots of great horses having in-noble endings running unplaced in their last race. Frankly, I hate seeing that but to each his own. Ask Steve Haskin about Damascus’ end of an illustrious racing career.

        There is a reason why Frankel never ran in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.

        • Lynda King says:

          Life is Good probably already has a stallion deal. Of course there might be additional incentives aka bonuses if he wins the BCC or if he runs and wins the Pegasus next year. Zayat had such a deal with Coolmore. There might have been bonuses involved for Justify as well, however he retired with an injury in the Belmont.
          I cannot speak for European stallions but I am somewhat familiar with the process here in the United States and I know that Chiba Horse Club has a racing manager who makes the final decisions.

          • Davids says:

            Yes, that’s right Lynda. Once a colt with a sire’s pedigree starts winning Grade/Group 1 races a deal for standing that colt are set in motion. There is no guessing where Flightline will be standing.

            With Europe the champion racehorses are somewhat cosseted while the Breeders’ Cup races are viewed as wonderful should the European horse win but merely a trifle if they are beaten. It doesn’t matter, having your cake and eating it.

            Coolmore definitely don’t accept loses once they have ‘made a deal’ for a colt to stand there. Swift retirement saves the asset.