A victory by Wicked Strong in the June 7 Belmont Stakes (gr. I) would break all the rules of engagement between New York and Boston, cities that are bitter rivals in just about every sport you can conjure. Red Sox—Yankees, Patriots—Giants and Jets, Bruins—Rangers, Celtics—Knicks; there is no love lost between any of them.
Yet along comes Wicked Strong, owned by the Beverly, Mass.-based Centennial Farms partnership group, and named for the survivors of last year's Boston Marathon bombings, who has not only enjoyed his greatest success in New York, but will seek to put an exclamation mark on his record with a victory in the Belmont, the richest and most prestigious race run in the Empire State.
The winner of the Twinspires.com Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) at New York's Aqueduct Racetrack in April, Wicked Strong is bringing fans from the two historic Eastern cities together in a way that members of each wouldn't quite believe.
Of course, Centennial has long ties to New York. Its founder, Don Little Sr., long ago chose New York fixture and Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens as his go-to conditioner. Don Little Jr., president of Centennial, has continued the family tradition started by his late father by having Jerkens' son, Jimmy, train Centennial horses, including Wicked Strong. Little certainly has maintained a sense of humor about the arrangement.
"I saw Jimmy wearing a New York Giants hat early this spring and I called him up and said, 'What are you doing?'" Little said with a grin.
Wicked Strong is doing in New England what California Chrome has been doing nationally this season—bringing renewed fan interest to horse racing from casual and lapsed fans. With the New England fair circuit having disappeared and Suffolk Downs, its one remaining major racetrack, having struggled over the past decade to stay above water, the Hard Spun colt may be single-handedly making racing popular again in the land of baked beans and chowder.
"There are a lot of people that are fans of his who know nothing about the horse business," Little said. "The first thing everybody asks is if they can come to the office and take his picture. So it's fun being able to educate people in Boston about him, and the message is certainly getting out there that 5% of his Triple Crown earnings are going to the One Fund, which helps the victims and the families of victims of the bombings. Hopefully we can contribute further, and a lot of people in New England are watching."
What they saw in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) was Wicked Strong finishing a solid fourth and earning $100,000. The $5,000 that went to the One Fund from the Derby brings the total contributed by the partners in Wicked Strong to more than $12,000, with another 5% of his Belmont earnings slated to go to the fund. There are 28 partners in on Wicked Strong, 20 of them brand new to racing. They decided unanimously to contribute a share of the horse's earnings to the One Fund.
"It's great for racing," Little said. "You have Uncle Sigh and Vinceremos also attached to charities this year, and we will carry the idea forward with other horses. The partners are all in favor of this type of contribution; it's amazing what has happened."
Centennial won the Belmont Stakes in 1993 with Colonial Affair and also campaigned champion sprinter Rubiano. Peter and Peggy Horvitz were first-time owners who had a piece of Rubiano and have stayed involved with Centennial ever since. Little and the Horvitzes have reorganzied the original Centennial Farms Management Company into Centennial Farms, which also includes longtime Centennial principals Dr. Steven Carr and Paula Parsons. The new entity will emphasize quality over quantity; presently they are racing four 3-year-olds and bought four yearlings in 2013, with plans to double that number later this year.
"I don't want to get any bigger," Little said. "We are trying to keep everybody involved and run it like we're the general managers of a professional sports team."
In Wicked Strong, they've got a popular horse running for a good cause, and a talented one as well who has earned better than $800,000 thus far. His Derby trip was less than perfect, and he has been training up to the Belmont in strong fashion. Perhaps he is strong enough to even unite New York and Boston.