NEW YORK – Like the 10 other horses entered in Saturday’s Belmont Stakes, Wicked Strong will attempt to navigate 1½ miles despite being untested at the distance, on a track wide enough to accommodate any jockey strategy, and in a race that has killed more dreams than it has ever granted.
Owned by Beverly, Mass.-based Centennial Farms, the 3-year-old colt will be racing for the first time since finishing fourth May 3 in the Kentucky Derby. He skipped the Preakness Stakes, using the time to heal after the taxing trip around Churchill Downs. Breaking from the far outside post position, Wicked Strong encountered traffic in the 19-horse Derby, and had the wounds to show for it.
“He had little cuts and scrapes we had to heal in his hind legs from having that rough go, but he seems to be doing real good,” said trainer Jimmy Jerkens. “Pretty good, for the most part.”
Unless Wicked Strong won the Kentucky Derby, the plan all along was to skip the second leg of the Triple Crown and focus on the Belmont. Jerkens is based here, and Wicked Strong already has something that race favorite California Chrome is desperately shooting for in his bid to become just the 12th horse to win the Triple Crown: A victory at Belmont Park.
Wicked Strong’s first victory was in a 1-mile maiden race at Belmont last Oct. 26. His only other win came April 5, at the Wood Memorial. That race also was held in New York, not 10 miles from Belmont at Aqueduct.
“When he had those [cuts], they were pretty superficial, but there were a lot of them, so that was the clincher,” said Jerkens, of skipping the Preakness. “They get sore, and if they hit them again when they’re sore, that stops them a little bit.”
Among the 11 horses expected to race in the Belmont, only three have wins at this track. Samraat also won a maiden race (6 furlongs) Oct. 23, and Tonalist won in his most recent start, the Peter Pan Stakes May 10. Tonalist (8-1) is the third betting choice, behind California Chrome (3-5) and Wicked Strong (6-1).
Riding Wicked Strong in the Belmont will be Rajiv Maragh, who has guided him to money finishes in all three races they’ve been together: third at the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes Nov. 30 at Aqueduct, first at the Wood, then fourth in the Derby. That experience and success could be key, because most owners and trainers say that the Belmont will be a jockey’s race.
“Yeah, it looks like there will be a lot of cat-and-mousing going on,” said Jerkens. “It all depends on the strategies the jockeys decide to use.
“I’m confident in Rajiv, I think he’s got a good judge of pace, and he’s been on this horse enough to where he knows a lot about him. You can’t overthink these things. You’ve just got to get your horse over there in the best shape you can, and hope it works out for you.”
Preparation is one thing, but stamina at the Belmont is always the great unknown. None of the 11 horses has been in a race longer than the Kentucky Derby, which covers 1¼ miles. And while Saturday’s 1½-mile distance might be a concern on some level to everyone who has a horse running the race, Jerkens is thinking back to the last time Wicked Strong ran, when the colt perhaps gave a reassuring sign.
“It’s always a concern. Anyone that thinks your horse wants to go longer than a mile and a half is . . .,” said Jerkens, choosing not to complete the thought.
“But what I like about him, which makes me think he would like it, is even in the Derby, when it looked like he got so discouraged from getting shut off, he still made that last surge to get fourth. I really loved to see that.
“Instead of saying screw it, and throw in the towel, after all that happened to him, he still made that little surge to get fourth money, and I thought that showed a lot. He’s a gamer.”
This will be the fourth time that Centennial Farms has had a horse in the Belmont. Its first entry, Colonial Affair, came home a winner in 1993. The next year, Signal Tap ran fourth, and in 2005, Reverberate was 10th.
It’s the third time that Jerkens will have a Belmont starter. The first two performed well: Thomas Jo finished third in 1998, and Oh So Awesome was fifth in 2005.
An upset win by Wicked Strong would give Jerkens his first victory in a Triple Crown race. It would give Centennial Farms its second. And it would dash the hopes of those wanting to see the first Triple Crown winner since 1978.
Is the horse ready to play the role of spoiler?
“I think so,” said Jerkens. “He’s given me every indication as of today that he’s ready to run, but horses are funny. I’m really happy with how he’s doing.”