LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Jimmy Jerkens prepped himself for this week’s endless carousel ride as best he could.
“I said to myself, just think about how bad it could be — and then multiply it 10 times,” Wicked Strong’s trainer said outside the stall on Friday morning. “But it’s been OK. It looks like the horse is doing well and that’s made it a lot easier.”
Jerkens has a colt with spirit and stamina that earned a huge victory in the Wood Memorial in early April. He has a jockey — Rajiv Maragh — that he’s comfortable with and confident in. “Rajiv is great,” he said. “He’s brave. There’s nothing chicken about him.”
And in Ipswich native Don Little Jr., Jerkens has an owner who appreciates the whimsicality of a sport involving four-legged children who cannot talk. Little’s father, Don, never had a horse in the Kentucky Derby and Jerkens’s father, Allen, the legendary trainer, never had a winner.
If Wicked Strong can find a way to get out of the Siberia that is the No. 20 post position, the sons can hit a generational daily double on Saturday in the 140th Run for the Roses at Churchill Downs. “It’s a way to honor the families’ tradition,” reflected Little. “You know that the two dads, one who’s still with us and one who’s not, would be very, very proud.”
The elder Little died two years ago from injuries suffered in an equestrian accident. The elder Jerkens, now 85, still can be found around the New York-area stables, but he won’t be here. “His traveling days are over, through necessity,” his son said.
Louisville never was Allen’s town and the Derby wasn’t his scene. “He really doesn’t relate to this kind of thing at all,” Jimmy said. Allen, who was the youngest trainer ever to be elected to the Hall of Fame when he was tapped at 45, was known as the ‘Giant Killer’ for his knack of bringing down Goliaths (Secretariat, Kelso, Buckpasser) with Davids (Onion, Beau Purple, Handsome Boy).
But he was 0-3 in the Derby, most recently with Devil His Due in 1992, never placing higher than sixth. “My father’s been training horses for 50 years and he hasn’t had any luck at it,” the 55-year-old Jerkens mused. “For as many years as he’s been training, though, he’s had very few Derby starters. Nothing really went well for him.”
His son had his dose of misfortune before he even got here. Five years ago, Jerkens had a potential winnah in what he said was the best horse he’d ever had. But Quality Road developed foot problems and was scratched five days before the Derby.
Wicked Strong (6-1) won’t be favored — California Chrome is 5-2. “How do you knock a horse like him?” wondered Jerkens. But nobody who follows the sport would be surprised if the Centennial Farms colt were to win. “We’re not Seattle Slew,” conceded Jerkens, “but we’re not 25-1 either.”
The only cloud over Wicked Strong’s candidacy is his far-out post position, which Jerkens has tried to convince himself is a benefit. “At least he won’t have anybody from the outside banging him in there,” he said after Wednesday’s draw, which provoked a stream of optimistic go-get-’ems from well-wishers with one notable exception.
“My dad was bummed about it,” Jerkens said. “Most everybody else called me and said, that was great. They were just trying to be nice. But I liked what he said — why in the hell would you want to run in that race for? The day we won the Wood he said, I suppose you’ve got to run in the Derby now.”
Yet recent history shows that high-numbered posts pay off. The last three victors — Orb, I’ll Have Another, and Animal Kingdom — all came out of the auxiliary gate. “I felt a little better watching a few re-runs of old Derbies,” Jerkens said. “The one two years ago especially. I couldn’t believe how [I’ll Have Another] got from post 19. It was incredible.” In 2008 Big Brown blew everybody away out of the No. 20. “He just went straight out there and just cleared everybody and he was long gone,” Jerkens remarked.
Once the gates open, nobody can predict how 20 three-year-old horses will behave. “Somebody says, who are you afraid of? I’m afraid of all of them,” said Jerkens. “That’s the way this race is every year. They wouldn’t be here if they didn’t belong. I worry about my horse.”
Jerkens has only one entered here. Todd Pletcher has four, Mike Maker three. “I don’t know how they do it,” he said. “I really don’t.” Jerkens is more of a small-batch trainer. “I don’t like to have too many horses,” he said, “because I don’t know if I can handle everything and see everything personally.”
That’s been his approach ever since he helped his father on weekends when he was in high school on Long Island before signing on full time as soon as he graduated and since Allen turned over some spare horses to him in 1997.
“The most impressive thing about Jimmy is, he’s a true horseman,” said Little. “You can go on the backstretch at Saratoga at 3 o’clock in the afternoon on a dark day or on a day when he doesn’t have any entries and he’s there with a horse, grooming it himself, hosing the legs himself. Very hands on. He’s phenomenal.”
This week Jerkens, sporting his trademark scally cap, was never far from Wicked Strong’s stall, calmly tending to business amid the hurly-burly. “It’s been a little better than I thought,” he said. “It’s been OK.”
His colt may require a long, strange trip to win the Derby. “He’s got to run the race of his life, no question about it,” acknowledged Jerkens. If he does, it’ll be a double for posterity, all in the families. “We’re the same generation, carrying the messages of the fathers before them,” said Little. “It’ll be fabulous.”