LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Wicked Strong has a built-in fan base for the Kentucky Derby. Like the entire city of Boston.
The colt named in honor of the victims of last year’s Boston Marathon bombings figures to be among the favorites for Saturday’s race. He’s got the credentials, having impressively won the Wood Memorial at 9-1 odds.
Wicked Strong is owned by a Boston-based partnership that has pledged to donate 5 percent of any money won by the bay colt during the Triple Crown series to the fund set up for the bombing victims.
“It’s a neat thing,” trainer Jimmy Jerkens said. “Might be an extra force that will help us, if you believe in that kind of stuff.”
“Sometimes you do,” he replied. “Things seem to happen like that for some unexplained reason.”
Wicked Strong began racing with the name Moyne Spun. Donald Little Jr., who heads the Centennial Farms partnership, didn’t like that moniker and decided to rename the horse with the marathon bombings in mind.
His first thought was Boston Strong, but the name was already taken. So the new name became Wicked Strong – giving it a linguistic Boston twist.
It seems to fit the once-headstrong colt, which got away from his handlers a couple times early in his career. That’s why Jerkens keeps a pony waiting to escort Wicked Strong back to the barn after a trip to the track.
The colt ranked fourth on the points leaderboard that determines the maximum 20-horse field for the 1 1/4-mile Derby. The victory in the Wood – his first in a stakes race – and the 100 points that went to the winner put him in the Derby picture.
“He ran terrific,” Jerkens said of the colt’s 3 1/2-length win. “He laid up closer to the pace without any effort, which I thought was great. The pace was really lively and he was sitting up five or six (lengths) off the lead without any effort. He certainly finished up good.”
The victory in the Wood was just Wicked Strong’s second in six career races.
He will be the first Derby starter for both Centennial Farms, which won the 1993 Belmont Stakes with Colonial Affair, and Jerkens, a 55-year-old son of Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkins.
“It’s nerve-wracking, especially when you’re here with only one horse,” the younger Jerkens said. “You’re looking at him so much, you almost start creating problems.”
Jerkens has 23 horses in his New York-based stable. He’s currently tied for 16th in the New York Racing Association trainer’s standings, winning at a 25 percent clip.
His 85-year-old father tried three times to win the Derby, his best finish being sixth place in 1978 with Sensitive Prince. He sent his son off to Louisville with the advice to treat the Derby like any other race.
“A lot of people fall into that trap of second-guessing themselves,” the younger Jerkens said. “You can’t let anybody or anything sway your judgment. Don’t train him any different just because somebody will come up to you and say, ‘So and so went out there and did this with his horse.’ I’m confident in how we’ve handled him so far.”
Jerkens thought he had a shot at winning the Derby in 2009 with Quality Road, calling him “the most talented horse I ever put my hands on.” Quality Road won the Florida Derby, but injured his right back foot that day. Later, he hurt his right front foot and missed the Triple Crown series.
Less than two months later, the late owner-breeder Edward Evans fired Jerkens and sent Quality Road to trainer Todd Pletcher.
Now Jerkens is actually at Churchill Downs with a chance to win, for himself, his father and the city of Boston. His father is nicknamed “The Giant Killer” for his record of big upsets, and Jerkens would like nothing more than to add to the family history.