Jimmy Jerkens is 55 years old and has a terrific resumé as a trainer, but one race that has eluded him has been the Kentucky Derby.
After missing out on what he believes was a great shot to win it in 2009, Jerkens will make his long-awaited Derby debut next Saturday with Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong.
“Of all the foals there are every year, when it gets narrowed down to this and you’ve got one of them going to the post, especially one with a big shot, you’ve got to feel like you’re lucky,” Jerkens said during a national teleconference on Tuesday.
“He certainly needs to run the race of his life to win it or hit the board. I think he’s primed and heading that way, so we’re going down there with a lot of confidence.”
Owned by Centennial Farms, Wicked Strong breezed seven furlongs in 1:27.11 on the Belmont Park training track.
Jerkens said he chose the unusual distance because he wanted to get Wicked Strong around two turns on the one-mile oval.
He told Churchill Downs that the work was perfect, with an eighth-of-a-mile gallop-out under exercise rider Kelvin Pahal.
Wicked Strong, who has never been on a plane, will van from New York to Louisville this afternoon.
Jerkens’ best chance at the Derby was with Quality Road in 2009, but a quarter crack knocked him off the Triple Crown trail.
Jerkens won the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby with Quality Road, but owner Edward Evans transferred his stock from Jerkens to Todd Pletcher that summer. Quality Road won the Amsterdam at Saratoga Race Course in his first race with Pletcher and was third in the Travers.
As a 4-year-old, he won the Donn, Met Mile and Woodward.
“His talent was far beyond anything of any horse I’ve ever had, by a long shot,” Jerkens said. “He could do things that just make the hair on the back of your neck stand up as easy as he could do them. He could put some workouts in the morning that were just incredible.
“He just had such so much talent, and to know that you had a horse that was that much better talent-wise and not be able to get him over there [for the Derby] was just incredibly frustrating.”
A son of Derby runner-up Hard Spun, Wicked Strong was picked by Centennial’s Don Little Jr. for what he believed to be a solid pedigree for the classics.
Wicked Strong was renamed in honor of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing victims and the city of Boston.
Centennial Farms is headquartered in Beverly, Mass., and 1 percent of the colt’s winnings go to One Fund, the major charitable foundation set up by the city of Boston that helps bombing victims. The percentage will increase to 5 percent for the Triple Crown races.
“It’s a little something extra important about it, no doubt about it,” Jerkens said. “Who knows, it might be another force that we need to help us along.”
Likely Derby favorite California Chrome is scheduled to work at Los Alamitos this morning and will ship to Louisville on Monday.
Pletcher’s four Derby prospects — Intense Holiday, Danza, We Miss Artie and Vinceremos — are scheduled to work on Sunday at Churchill.
For the second work in a row, Gotham and Withers runner-up Uncle Sigh trained in blinkers on Friday and will wear them for the Derby.
“He’s much more focused; he’s rating kindly,” trainer Gary Contessa said. “Everybody that puts blinkers on before the Derby worries about being the next Palace Malice.
“I see that he’s rating kindly in behind horses. We put him in behind horses and made him eat dirt. We’ve done our due diligence this last month, and we’ve worked him where he has to come up through the rail. I don’t see any hesitancy, and I always saw hesitancy in him without the blinkers.”
Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino has bought a share in Oaks prospect Empress of Midway through the same partnership that brought him to the Derby last year with Goldencents.
Pitino watched the Doug O’Neill-trained filly work at Churchill on Friday.
AROUND THE TRACKS
The Breeders’ Cup has eliminated the Marathon from its roster of races. . . .
For the second time this week, Finger Lakes’ live racing card is cancelled today due to lack of sufficient entries. . . .
At 18-1, Unitarian won the Grade II Elkhorn at a mile and a half on the Keeneland turf on Friday.
Contessa B. won the 10th race what will go down as the last race on Polytrack at Keeneland before the main track is ripped up to re-install a conventional dirt surface for the fall meet. . . .
Quick Casablanca won the $100,000 Last Tycoon Stakes by a head on opening night of Santa Anita’s first spring meet.
Ridden by Joe Talamo, Quick Casablanca paid $34.60, $18 and $6.80 at 16-1 odds.
It was the 6-year-old Chile-bred’s first race since Nov. 17 at Aqueduct. Quick Casablanca has won Group 1 races in Chile and Argentina. It was his first start for Hall of Fame trainer Ron McAnally after going 0-5 in New York since last May.
“I was able to work him the other day, and he showed me that turn of foot in the morning too,” Talamo said. “They were moving a little slow on the front end, so I had to move sooner than I wanted.”