Wicked Strong swept by dueling favorites Social Inclusion and Samraat to win the Wood Memorial. (Photos by Eclipse Sportswire)
Making the Grade, which will run through the 2014 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners of the big races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the next Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.
Wicked Strong closed powerfully from sixth after three-quarters of a mile in the Wood Memorial Stakes and charged well clear to a dominant 3 ½-length win. The Wood briefly looked like a showdown between the top two betting choices in the Wood – runner-up Samraat and favorite Social Inclusion – before Wicked Strong overwhelmed both of them to punch his ticket to the Kentucky Derby.
Let’s take a closer look at this Hard Spun colt, named in honor of the victims of the Boston Marathon bombings, and assess his chances in the first jewel of the Triple Crown. With a percentage of his earnings to be donated to One Fund Boston, a charity formed by Gov. Deval Patrick and Mayor Thomas M. Menino to help those most affected by the tragic Marathon bombings, there will be plenty of sentimental support in the coming weeks for Wicked Strong.
Sire (Father): Hard Spun
Dam (Mother): Moyne Abbey, by Charismatic
Owners: Centennial Farms
Breeder: William F. Lynn (Ky.)
Trainer: Jimmy Jerkens
Ability: Centennial Farms purchased Wicked Strong at the 2012 Keeneland September yearling sale for $375,000, the second-highest price for a yearling by Hard Spun ($400,000 was the top) and well above the average price ($87,330) and median ($45,000) for the sale.
Clearly a well-put-together colt, Wicked Strong showed talent from the outset as a 2-year-old. He finished second in his career debut in September at Belmont Park and then won by two lengths in his second race. Challenged with a step up in class in the Grade 2 Remsen Stakes on Nov. 30, Wicked Strong finished third, beaten by only a half-length by Honor Code and Cairo Prince, in his final start of 2013. His top Equibase Speed Figure as a 2-year-old was a respectable 92 earned for his lone victory.
Wicked Strong’s 2014 debut was a disappointing one. He never fired when finishing ninth of 11 in the Grade 2 Holy Bull Stakes, beaten by more than 15 lengths.
He showed some improvement – jumping from an 80 to a 93 Equibase Speed Figure – in his second start but nothing that would have given an indication that he was sitting on a huge performance entering the Wood Memorial Stakes. His dominant Wood Memorial victory was impressive in a number of ways. First, he was able to close into a solid pace and looked plenty fresh in the final furlong of his first try at 1 1/8 miles. Second, Wicked Strong established a new career-best Equibase Speed Figure of 107, which puts him in the mix with the top 3-year-olds approaching the Kentucky Derby. Finally, he beat two 3-year-olds that I’m confident are very talented horses in Samraat and Social Inclusion, and he beat them handily.
Could Wicked Strong simply have turned in a career-best effort at the perfect time? Sure, but I think it’s more likely that he’s finally figuring things out and maturing.
Keep in mind that he was a late April foal, so he might have been slightly behind a number of his peers who are a few months older. I think the best is yet to come from Wicked Strong, although I do have concerns about how taxing a career-best performance will be coming back in four weeks for the most important start of his life. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the clocker reports during the 10 days leading into the Derby to see what kind of impression he is making on the track in his morning exercise.
Running style: It’s pretty well established at this point that Wicked Strong prefers to race off the pace and rally with one, extended closing bid. But he’s not a plodder. Wicked Strong showed some early speed when third, only 1 ½ lengths behind a swift half-mile in :46.11, in his first career win in October 2013.
In the Wood Memorial, Wicked Strong settled into a nice, comfortable rhythm while saving ground on the inside and didn’t seem to mind at all having a little bit of dirt kicked in his face. Jockey Rajiv Maragh asked him to pick up the pace entering the final turn and Wicked Strong responded by moving up on the outside.
Wicked Strong took a bit of urging to switch leads in the stretch but once he did, the colt accelerated powerfully. If you figure Wicked Strong tracks in about mid-pack in the Derby and, if all goes well in the race, makes a move on the far turn to get within striking distance, he could be in an ideal spot with a shot to win near the top of the stretch at Churchill Downs on May 3.
Connections: Jimmy Jerkens boasts about as good a pedigree as you’ll find in a trainer. He’s the son of Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, one of the most respected horsemen of the 20th Century and still active as a trainer approaching his 85th birthday on April 21.
Jimmy Jerkens has put together a nice career of his own, with more than 600 wins since he took out his trainer’s license in 1997, including victories by Artie Schiller in the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Mile and Corinthian in the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Jimmy Jerkens also was the trainer of 2009 Florida Derby winner Quality Road, who missed that year’s Kentucky Derby because of hoof issues. Jimmy Jerkens has never had a starter in the Kentucky Derby or Preakness, but he trained Thomas Jo to a third-place finish in the 1998 Belmont Stakes.
Don Little, an experienced horseman and successful Boston investment banker founded Centennial Farms in 1982. Little died in February 2012 from a fall while show jumping, but the racing operation continues under the care of his son Don Little Jr., a former world-class polo player. The goal of the Centennial Farms racing partnership is to: “purchase high-class racing prospects at the country's most prestigious public sales, develop them into champion racehorses, and retire them to successful stallion careers.” Leading Centennial runners through the years include 1993 Belmont Stakes winner Colonial Affair, champion sprinter Rubiano and the aforementioned Corinthian.
Rajiv Maragh has ridden Wicked Strong in two of his six races, including the Wood Memorial. He finished third in the 2011 Kentucky Derby aboard Mucho Macho Man and ranked 18th among all U.S. jockeys in 2013 by purse earnings with $8,796,467. Maragh has won four Breeders’ Cup races, including two wins aboard Groupie Doll in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.
Pedigree: Wicked Strong is from the third crop of Hard Spun, a Grade 1 winner who finished second in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2007 and third in that year’s Preakness Stakes. Hard Spun, a Pennsylvania-bred by influential sire Danzig, is an incredibly attractive horse physically who by all accounts was very sound as a racehorse. Hard Spun also had plenty of speed and an abundance of determination on the racetrack.
WICKED STRONG PREVIOUSLY RAN THIRD IN THE 2013 REMSEN
Questing, the 2012 champion 3-year-old filly, is Hard Spun’s best runner to date and was a Grade 1 winner at 1 1/8 miles and 1 ¼ miles.
Moyne Abbey, a winning daughter of 1999 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Charismatic, is the dam (mother) of Wicked Strong. A half-sister (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to multiple graded stakes winner Gulch Approval and stakes winners Approval rating and Rusty Slipper, Moyne Abbey was a winner at 1 1/16 miles. Wicked Strong’s second dam (maternal grandmother), Classic Approval, was a winner at 1 1/16 miles and stakes-placed at 1 1/8 miles on the grass; and his third dam (maternal great-grandmother), Classic Value, was a graded stakes winner at a mile on the main track. Classic Value also is second dam of Student Council, winner of the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at 1 ¼ miles in 2007.
It’s tough to get a strong read on Hard Spun from only three crops ages three and older, but so far he appears to be pretty versatile and capable of siring sprinters and two-turn horses as well as quality horses on dirt, turf and synthetic surfaces. Wicked Strong’s female family adds a nice dose of class and stamina, giving the Wood Memorial Stakes winner every chance to succeed at 1 ¼ miles on May 3 at Churchill Downs.