Centennial Farms' Wicked Strong hadn't won since breaking his maiden last October at Belmont Park, but something about the bay Hard Spun colt made his connections give him another shot—one that paid off big time.
Flying late on the outside in the $1 million TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial (gr. I) at Aqueduct Racetrack April 5, the James Jerkens trainee soared past tiring 8-5 favorite Social Inclusion and the plucky Samraat, who had set themselves down for a battle on the lead. He was clear by 3 1/2 lengths at odds of 9-1 under Rajiv Maragh in a final time of 1:49.31 for the 1 1/8-mile event, with the previously unbeaten Samraat edging out second over Social Inclusion by a nose (VIDEO).
From maiden winner to the latest addition to the field for the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I), Wicked Strong earned 100 points to rank third on the leaderboard for the 20-horse Derby field. In his last start Feb. 22, he was fourth in a Gulfstream Park allowance event won by eventual Besilu Stables Florida Derby (gr. I) winner Constitution. He was third best last November in the Remsen Stakes (gr. II) behind Honor Code and Cairo Prince, but finished ninth in the Miller Lite Holy Bull Stakes gr. II) won by Cairo Prince.
Social Inclusion was the big hype horse headed into the Wood Memorial off the merits two straight victories at Gulfstream Park including a track-record defeat of Honor Code, and he went to the front as expected in the early going. He was immediately challenged by 16-1 shot Schivarelli, however, and raced closely with that rival through a quarter in :23.79 and a half in :47.47. Wicked Strong, away in good order, rated kindly on the inside throughout the early stages and was still sixth in the field of 10 when the front-runners hit three-quarters in 1:11.16.
By that point, previously undefeated Withers (gr. III) and Gotham (gr. III) victor Samraat was launching his bid rounding the far turn and Social Inclusion had taken the lead turning for home, with Wicked Strong angled out to the four path and set down in earnest for the drive.
"When I saw him laying five lengths off the lead, just galloping, I really felt we had a big shot," Jerkens said. "He was really comfortable laying relatively close behind a pretty fast pace."
Jerkens had a key Derby contender with impressive Florida Derby (gr. I) winner Quality Road in 2009, but the runner was sidelined with foot issues and missed the big race.
"I'd love to get another crack at it, that's for sure," Jerkens said. "Looks like a horse where distance shouldn't bother him."
As Social Inclusion tired in the final furlong after a mile went in 1:36.39, the winner snatched away the advantage with less than a sixteenth to go and sailed past with a powerful kick. The favorite was nipped for the place by Samraat, who came into the Wood 5-for-5.
Samraat, who earned 40 points to enhance his qualifying point total to 100, also will continue on to the Derby, said trainer Rick Violette.
"Other than win, he got a huge education," said Violette, who trains Samraat for Leonard Riggio's My Meadowview Farms. "As long as he comes out of it all right we'll head to Kentucky. I don't think there's anything he can't do; (jockey) Jose (Ortiz) can put him anywhere he wants—behind horses, on the inside, wherever. I don't think the extra eighth of a mile is going to bother him."
Social Inclusion, who was making his first stakes start, has 20 points and is currently 22nd on the leaderboard.
"It was very good," said trainer Manny Azpurua of Social Inclusion's effort. "Next time he'll win; he'll kill them."
Wicked Strong paid $20.40, $7.60, and $4.20 while Samraat brought $4.80 and $3. Social Inclusion paid $2.70. Schivarelli finished fourth, another 1 1/2 lengths back, while Uncle Sigh, Noble Moon, Kristo, Effinex, Harpoon, and Los Borrachos completed the order of finish. Kid Cruz scratched.
Maragh had big praise for Wicked Strong despite his limited success.
"To me, he's the Derby favorite right now; in my book, anyway," the jockey said. "He showed that more distance is going to be better for him. He's really maturing at the right time now, and there's a lot left in the tank, so I don't think we're at the bottom of him yet."
Wicked Strong was bred in Kentucky by William F. Lynn out of the Charismatic mare Moyne Abbey, and sold for $375,000 at the 2012 Keeneland September yearling sale when consigned by Three Chimneys Sales. The Wood victory was his second in six starts, improving his record to 2-1-1 for earnings of $704,610.