After a somewhat disappointing Triple Crown campaign, Wicked Strong started the second half of his sophomore season in fine style, turning the tables on Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Tonalist in the $600,000 Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) July 26 at Saratoga Race Course (VIDEO).
Wearing blinkers for the first time for trainer James Jerkens, 2-1 shot Wicked Strong showed uncustomary speed and proved unwavering in the stretch to defeat 9-10 choice Tonalist by 2 1/4 lengths. Centennial Farms' son of Hard Spun was timed in 1:49.16 on a fast track with Rajiv Maragh aboard.
The $1 million Travers Stakes (gr. I) Aug. 23 at Saratoga is the next target for Wicked Strong, Jerkens said afterward.
"This is great. This is really great. The way he works in the morning, I don't think Secretariat worked any better than this horse does in the morning," he said. "I know the talent's there. It's just getting him to put it all together."
Bred in Kentucky by William F. Lynn, Wicked Strong surpassed $1 million in career earnings with his initial appearance at Saratoga.
Wicked Strong picked up his second win at the 1 1/8-mile distance following the biggest victory of his career in the TwinSpires.com Wood Memorial Stakes (gr. I) at Aqueduct Racetrack April 5. Well regarded heading into the Triple Crown, Wicked Strong ran fourth in both the May 3 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and the June 7 Belmont Stakes (gr. I), in which he finished in a dead-heat with California Chrome, 1 3/4 lengths behind Tonalist.
After that, Jerkens decided to shake things up a bit, adding a slight blinker. The addition had its desired effect as Wicked Strong showed speed while pressing the pacesetting Legend on the outside before taking the lead leaving the turn for home. Tonalist, ridden by Joel Rosario, presented a formidable challenge in the drive, but Wicked Strong took command in the final furlong to win impressively.
Wicked Strong, who drew the outside post in the field of six, was sweating heavily heading to the post but that was not unusual for the high-strung colt, Jerkens noted.
"We basically had cheaters, just enough to keep him focused," said Jerkens after his first Jim Dandy win. "They did exactly what we wanted."
As for Wicked Strong's pre-race appearance, the trainer added, "He's always like that. It's gotten to the point I'd worry of he didn't sweat. He's been doing that since was a 2-year-old."
Tonalist finished second, 3 3/4 lengths in front of Kid Cruz and Irad Ortiz Jr. Kentucky Derby runner-up Commanding Curve was fourth, followed by Ulanbator and Legend.
Both packing 123 pounds, Wicked Strong paid $6.40, $3.10 and $2.40, while Tonalist returned $2.50 and $2.10. The chalky exacta came back $12.40. Kid Cruz was $2.50 to show.
Cousin Stephen, the likely pacesetter, was scratched after running in the Curlin Stakes a day earlier. That helped create the opportunity for Wicked Strong, who never gave Legend a breather after that opponent took the lead from Kid Cruz shortly after the start. Legend, along the inside, posted fractions of :24.45, :47.73, and 1:11.36 through six furlongs before weakening.
Tonalist, advancing into third up the backstretch, launched his bid for the lead near the quarter pole. Wicked Strong floated wide coming off the bend and there was some brushing between the two favorites at the head of the stretch. But Wicked Strong, responding to right-handed encouragement from Maragh, reached the furlong mark a half length in front and drew away in the final stages under strong hand ride.
"Rajiv took him a couple of horse widths out when he saw Tonalist coming and that discourages a horse that's coming up from behind you, too," noted Jerkens. "That's race riding. That's what you have to do. It was probably just enough to discourage him a little bit and when we straightened away we kind of kicked away and it made the difference."
"I thought he was in a good position on the backside," Rosario said of Tonalist. "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."
Wicked Strong produced his third lifetime win from nine starts and boosted his earnings to $1,244,610 for his Massachusetts-based owner partnership. Centennial paid $375,000 to land Wicked Strong from the Three Chimneys Sales consignment at the 2012 Keeneland September yearling sale.
"He always runs very good, very close to winning some more days; he kind of put it all together today and put on a good performance," Maragh said. "Being a small field, we didn't have one set game plan. Kind of wanted to get him sharp out of the gate and see how the race developed. We talked about if he was giving it to me good early, don't take it away from him.
"He was very aggressive today; he put me in the race, which I was happy about. Tonalist made a bold move, and I thought, 'It's going to be a good horse race' from there and Wicked Strong just dug in and found extra and pulled away at the end.
Maragh said he liked the blinkers on Wicked Strong.
"He wasn't loafing down the backstretch. He was running into a nice rhythm and didn't go on and off the bridle, which he was doing in his prior starts. He was more focused today and more aggressive."
The colt's dam, Moyne Abbey, is a winning daughter of 1999 Kentucky Derby and Preakness (gr. I) winner Charismatic. Wicked Strong is the first stakes winner from his dam, who has had three winners from as many starters. Wicked Strong's extended family includes grade I winner and sire Student Council .