Another Jerkens pulls off an upset

April, 6, 2014

Trainer Jimmy Jerkens isn't the "Giant Killer."

That distinction belongs to his father, the 84-year-old Living Legend of the sport, Allen Jerkens who beat horses like Secretariat and Kelso in fashioning a Hall of Fame career.

The 55-year-old Jimmy, though, is a pretty capable trainer in his own right who has won a collection of renowned Grade 1 races like the Travers, Breeders' Cup Mile, Metropolitan Handicap and Florida Derby.

And every now then, you'll see a little bit of the father in the son.

Such as Saturday, when the younger Jerkens played the role of a Giant Killer in sending out Wicked Strong to notch an upset, 9-1 victory by 3 ½ lengths in the $1 million Wood Memorial at Aqueduct over a field that included two budding giants, the undefeated Samraat and Social Inclusion, who finished second and third, respectively.

"You have to be willing to take chances," Jerkens said. "If my father didn't do that, he never would have beaten all those great horses."

On Saturday Jimmy matched his dad's total of Wood Memorial wins (Devil His Due took the 1992 edition for Allen with Jimmy working as an assistant trainer), and if all goes well in the next four weeks, Jimmy just might do something that has eluded his dad's grasp: win the Kentucky Derby.

It's certainly not far-fetched.

His horse's final time of 1:49.31 for the mile and the eighth was the fastest in the Wood since 2005, and the way the colt pulled away in the final sixteenth from both Social Inclusion, the 8-5 favorite in the Wood, and Samraat, the 3-1 second choice, bodes well for his chances in the final furlong at Churchill Downs.

"[He] looks like a horse where distance shouldn't bother him," Jerkens said.

Jerkens' faith first surfaced last November at Aqueduct when Wicked Strong ran a close third behind Honor Code and Cairo Prince in the Remsen. It was tested this winter in Florida when Wicked Storm ran ninth in the Holy Bull Stakes and then fourth behind eventual Florida Derby winner Constitution in a mere allowance race.

Jerkens, though, was not flustered by the Florida races, believing his horse simply did not like the racing surface at Gulfstream and loathed the kickback that was hurled in his face.

Back in New York, he expected to see the Wicked Strong of old and was not disappointed as his colt rallied from mid-pack in the field of 10 to win convincingly.

My father always said there are two sets of past performances you can throw out, Saratoga and Florida, and that still holds up.

-- Allen Jerkens, trainer Wicked Strong
"I thought we had a real shot to win this race," Jerkens said. "It sounds like red-boarding but we really had faith in this horse today. The race in the Remsen shows this isn't a fluke. My father always said there are two sets of past performances you can throw out, Saratoga and Florida, and that still holds up.

"[The Derby] is nerve-wracking," said Jerkens, who has yet to saddle a Derby starter, "but it's great. It's what everyone lives for when they train. [He] looks like a horse where distance shouldn't bother him."

Saturday's win guaranteed Wicked Strong of a spot in the Run for the Roses as it provided him with 100 points in the Road to the Derby series and pushed him up to the third spot on the leader board. Where he stands among the top 3-year-olds in stature is something different, though he certainly looked the part of a leading contender for the opening leg of the Triple Crown on Saturday.

"I think we have as good a chance as anyone [in the Derby]," said Donald Little Jr., the head of the Centennial Farms partnership that owns Wicked Strong. "The Churchill Downs surface is similar to [Aqueduct] which helps us, and a lot of horses that were at the top of [the Derby] list at the first of the year are not there now. Is he peaking at the right time? It's like the [Boston] Bruins, I'm worried about them being too good now."

Little is a native of Massachusetts and wanted to name the horse Boston Strong but someone else had taken the name. So he went with Wicked Strong and Centennial donates one percent of the colt's purse money to the One Fund Boston, which helps families affected by the Boston Marathon bombing.

About $5,900 went to the charity on Saturday, and on the first Saturday of the May, if Wicked Strong can run down likely Kentucky Derby favorite California Chrome -- a powerful winner of the Santa Derby less than an hour after the Wood on Saturday -- and about 18 other rivals, it would continue a run of Boston success that has seen the Red Sox win a World Series, the Patriots reach the AFC title game and the Bruins play like they are intent on winning another Stanley Cup.

Little says he would even like to bring one or two of the families of Marathon victims to the Derby with him as guests.

Doing that would surely make Wicked Strong a sentimental favorite in the Derby, where the son of Hard Spun figures to have something else working for him against a horse as good as California Chrome.

He has the son of the Giant Killer on his side.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.



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