Getting to the Kentucky Derby is a tough road.
Ask Jimmy Jerkens.
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Five years after the New York-based trainer was forced to pull presumptive Kentucky Derby favorite Quality Road just five days before the race, Jerkens has made it to Churchill Downs this time with Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong.
In 2009, under Jerkens' care, Quality Road won three of his first four races, including impressive strikes in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby.
"He was hands-down the most talented horse I ever put my hands on," Jerkens said Monday of the horse that ended up placing in 12 of his 13 career races. "He was just incredible what he could do. He was an out-and-out freak."
However, Quality Road could not stay healthy, continually battling foot problems. When a quarter crack in his right front foot kept him from working out in New York on the Monday before the Derby, the horse was deemed unfit to make the trip to Louisville.
"It was very disappointing,' Jerkens said. "You just had a feeling, 'If I could just get him over there (to the race), the rest will take care of itself.' It went right down to the wire. We were ready to ship the next day, and he just wasn't good enough to do it."
Owner Edward Evans, who died in 2010, was so disappointed, he transferred Quality Road from Jerkens to Todd Pletcher.
"He just put such emphasis on (the Derby), it ruined our relationship. He fired me very quickly after that," Jerkens said. "It would have been great if he said, 'Well, it didn't work out. We've got a nice horse. We can go for the Travers and have a top handicap horse.' But he didn't think that way."
Meanwhile, Jerkens pressed on, winning the 2010 Travers with Afleet Express.
Wicked Strong is his first Derby horse. Jerkens admits that he knew his horse was athletic and talented, but until the Wood win, he wasn't sure he had a Derby horse.
"He had disappointed us so bad in Florida we didn't really know," Jerkens said. Wicked Strong lost two Gulfstream races by a combined 21½ lengths. "You had to question, geez, maybe he just isn't what we thought."
Wicked Strong trained well near the end of his Florida stay, however, then responded to the cooler New York weather to win the Wood Memorial by 31/2 lengths over Samraat.
A 9-1 shot, the son of Hard Spun stuck closer to the pace in the Wood, showed a late kick and earned an impressive 104 Beyer Speed figure in picking up his second win in six starts and his first stakes win.
As a bonus, the horse is owned by longtime Jerkens client Donald Little Jr. of Centennial Farm — owner of 1993 Belmont winner Colonial Affair — which is based in Beverly, Mass.
Little has donated 1 percent of the horse's earnings to the One Fund, which supports victims of the Boston Marathon bombing. For the Triple Crown races, Centennial will donate 5 percent of Wicked Strong's earnings.
The horse was first named Moyne Spun, but Little tried to rename it Boston Strong. When he learned that the name was taken, he went with Wicked Strong, playing off a Boston saying.
"It's a neat thing to go along with it," Jerkens said. "It might be an extra force to help us, if you believe in that kind of stuff."
Jerkens' bloodlines don't hurt either. The 55-year-old trainer is the son of Hall of Fame trainer H. Allen Jerkens, now 85.
The elder Jerkens ran Derby horses in 1976, '78 and '92 without success, but perhaps his most well-known victory came against a Derby winner, when Onion upset Secretariat at Saratoga in 1973.
A 14-year-old Jimmy Jerkens watched the race that day from the Saratoga backstretch and remembers seeing the horses disappear behind the tote board, expecting Secretariat to be in front when the horses became visible again.
Instead, Onion had the lead, and he won by three-quarters of a length.
"It was like a fantasy," Jerkens said. "I'll never forget it."