In the 11th hour, a tiny seed of doubt was sewn.
Wicked Strong trainer James Jerkens reconsidered his decision to add blinkers for the 3-year-old’s run in Saturday’s Grade II Jim Dandy at Saratoga Race Course. He kept the blinkers, but cut a diamond-shaped hole in them to allow the Hard Spun colt to see behind him, and Wicked Strong responded by winning the Travers prep race by 21⁄4 lengths over Belmont winner Tonalist in front of a crowd of 31,812.
The change was sparked by a phone conversation with his father, Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens.
“I was talking to my father last night, and he was saying, ‘Boy, why would you do that?’ ” Jerkens said. “So it made me think, ‘Look, maybe I’ll split the difference and cut most of the cup off.’ More cup than he had on the blinkers probably would have made him too rank.”
Legend broke from the inside post and quickly made the lead, bringing the field through a first quarter-mile of the
11⁄8-mile race in 24.45. Wicked Strong came up to join Legend, and the pair led through the first three-quarters of a mile, while favored Tonalist sat just off their pace, waiting for jockey Joel Rosario to push the button.
In the final turn, Legend faded quickly to the back of the field and remained there, leaving Wicked Strong to repel the challenge of Tonalist. Wicked Strong brushed with Tonalist as they entered the stretch, then drove off under the whip of Rajiv Maragh.
“Tonalist made a bold move, and at that moment, I was saying, ‘Well, it’s going to be a good horse race from there,’ ” Maragh said. “Wicked Strong just dug in and found extra and pulled away at the end.”
“I thought he was in a good position on the backside,” Rosario said. “Turning for home, I thought I had [Wicked Strong], but he just kept on going. When I turned for home, it looked like I could go by him, but he was better today.”
The duo was 41⁄2 lengths ahead of the rest of the field as they came into the stretch, leaving a battle for third behind them, which was won easily by Linda Rice trainee Kid Cruz. Rice said she was pleased with the race, and she believes it sets him up well for the Travers.
Wicked Strong finished in 1:49.16, paying $6.40, $3.10 and $2.40. Tonalist’s runner-up finish was worth $2.50 and $2.10, while third-place Kid Cruz returned $2.50.
It was the second win in a Travers prep in as many days for Jerkens, who saw V. E. Day upset the Curlin on Friday.
“The horse that won yesterday, I think he ran a second slower — the track’s not the same every day, either — but he ran a second slower than Wicked Strong, which isn’t bad,” he said. “V. E. Day, he’s improved by leaps and bounds with each race. Those kinds of horses usually have a lot of quality.”
That gives him a pair of horses aimed at the $1.25 million Travers, the Mid-Summer Derby and the next test for the 3-year-old division. Several others in the division will run today at Monmouth Park in the Haskell, where leading filly Untapable will step in against the colts. She will face Medal Count, who ran in the Kentucky Derby and was third in the Belmont, and Bayern, who ran in the Preakness and won the Grade II Woody Stephens.
Maragh seems to think Wicked Strong can hold his own for another furlong in the 11⁄4-mile Travers against the top 3-year-olds.
“He’s just getting warmed up at the end, it seemed,” he said.
“He wasn’t loafing down the backstretch. He was running into a nice rhythm and he didn’t go on and off the bridle, which he was doing in his prior start. He was more focused today and more aggressive.”
The performance proved Wicked Strong can run in the afternoon equal to the potential he shows in the mornings.
“I don’t think Secretariat worked any better than this horse does in the mornings,” Jerkens said.
“I know the talent’s there. It’s just getting him to put it all together.”