Don Little Jr. and trainer Jimmy Jerkens could have given up on their 3-year-old colt.
Wicked Strong had been sputtering, and with the Wood Memorial fast approaching, he was not running his best heading into the race, a major prep for the Kentucky Derby.
“We’re with him every day, but from the outside looking in, it looked like we were taking a shot,” Jerkens said. “But I really liked his chances.”
Wicked Strong and jockey Rajiv Maragh stunned the field, winning the Wood by 3½ lengths, and the thoroughbred from Beverly-based Centennial Farms emerged as the partnership’s first Derby qualifier.
“What else could you ask for having a horse going to the Kentucky Derby?” said Little, an Ipswich native and the president of Centennial Farms. “It’s the pinnacle of the sport.”
The horse, originally named Moyne Spun, was purchased for $375,000 at the 2012 Keeneland Yearling Sales in Kentucky. Less than two weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings, Little wanted to rename him Boston Strong, but that was already taken by Sovereign Stable in Manchester, N.H.
With the help of his friend and principal of the Boston Bruins, Charlie Jacobs, and Jacobs’s wife, Kim, Little settled on Wicked Strong.
Along with the moniker, Little also decided to donate 1 percent of the horse’s winnings to the One Fund, which was set up to support the victims of the bombings. To date, that has amounted to roughly $7,000, and Little has upped the ante to 5 percent for the upcoming Triple Crown races.
Orb, the winner of last year’s Kentucky Derby, received $1.4 million, so a Wicked Strong victory would result in a sizable donation to the One Fund.
“[The Marathon bombings] changed a lot of people’s lives,” Little said. “A lot of times, it takes tragedy to pull people together, and it’s very obvious that did that for the people of Boston, reflecting on the sports community and how the teams performed.
“The first reaction is anger, which I had myself. But then after that you think about the victims and their families and how we’re going to grow from this and support each other from this, and it happened. It’s a funny way to think about it but if he wins the races, it can be a substantial support for the One Fund and carry the message.”
Things were not looking great in January when the horse ran a clunker in the Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park in Florida, placing ninth in the 11-horse field.
A fourth-place finish in an allowance race followed Feb. 22.
The Kentucky Derby seemed almost unrealistic at that point but this was Wicked Strong, and Little knew there would be no quit.
“A lot of people could have given up on him after the Holy Bull, but being the expert horseman Jimmy is, he saw the talent there,” the 53-year-old Little said.
“Like the city of Boston and like his name, you look back, and it looked like we had a superstar at the end of his two years, and the wind kind of went out of your sails [with the Holy Bull]. But with his determination, his attitude, and his development, he fought back to be on top, and he’s right on top.”
With Wicked Strong, who is training with Jerkens at Belmont Park until the Derby, Little not only has an opportunity to win the Derby, but a way to give back to a city still healing in the wake of last year’s tragedy.
Wicked Strong is the latest star from the Beverly-based partnership, which has produced successful thoroughbreds such as Colonial Affair, Corinthian, and Rubiano.
Centennial Farms was founded in 1982 by Little’s father, Donald, and was one of the first groups in the horse racing industry to syndicate partnerships, following the footsteps of Cot Campbell of Dogwood Stable, who formulated the idea in 1969.
Today, horse syndicates have become commonplace in racing because of the high costs associated with owning a thoroughbred.
Little’s father, who died in an equestrian accident in 2012 at the age of 77, utilized his background as an investment banker to start the company, and with the help of a few of his partners from Wall Street, assembled a team to attend select sales for top-caliber horses.
“It’s like managing a stock portfolio,” said Little. “We have a portfolio of horses and the dream is to have every single one we buy be competitive in the New York Racing Association.”
Little, who became president of Centennial Farms in 1994, has 28 investors in the Wicked Strong partnership, which features two other horses, Juba and Salisbury Knight, with a total cost of $1.5 million. All partnerships include the purchase price of horses and maintenance costs and expenses for a year and a half up front.
“That takes them through the end of the 2-year-old year, and if they’re successful and start earning purses, then hopefully it’s a one-time investment,” Little said. “If not, partners are responsible for one year of additional expenses after that.
“We emphasize partnership with groups of horses. You spread your risk, and all you need is one to hit.”
Little is ultimately the general manager and works closely with veterinarian Stephen Carr and trainer Paula Parsons to evaluate racing prospects at select sales by conducting extensive examinations to ensure their pedigree.
Parsons also is responsible for the early conditioning of the horses at Centennial’s Middleburg, Va., farm. Centennial Farms’ ultimate goal is build the horse’s equity and value as a stallion prospect for breeders in Kentucky, which is the premier market.
Corinthian, who won the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in 2007, finished with earnings of more than $1.2 million and sold for $10 million.
Colonial Affair, which won the 1993 Belmont Stakes, as well as the Whitney Handicap and Jockey Club Gold Cup, finished with earnings of more than $1.6 million and sold as a stallion for $3 million.
While the goal is to win Grade 1 races, Little also stressed the importance of recognizing when to move the horses to the Maryland circuit.
“If you want to increase value in a horse to become a stallion prospect, you have to win some big races on the New York circuit,” Little said. “But not all of them turn out to be that way. If it’s not going to work here, we have a trainer in Maryland, Rodney Jenkins, and he’s good at putting horses at levels where they can compete and earn money.”
And if the thoroughbreds don’t succeed and their careers are finished?
“If there’s an injury or if the horse’s racing career is finished, we find them good homes,” Little said. “We’re very proactive in the welfare of the horse. You’ve got to love the animal and care about the animal, and priority one is the well-being of the horses.”