Three furlongs from the finish, Wicked Strong seemed to be in a wicked tough situation. He was sixth, four lengths behind Social Inclusion, who apparently was bound for Louisville as the undefeated favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
Then Rajiv Maragh pulled Wicked Strong to the middle of the track, and with each stride, they started cutting into Social Inclusion's lead. Suddenly, the Wood Memorial was a race, not a runaway. By the eighth pole, Wicked Strong was third, a length and a half behind but looking like a sure winner. The 9-1 shot surged past Social Inclusion inside Aqueduct's sixteenth pole and drew off powerfully by 3 1/2 lengths. Samraat, foaled at My Meadowview Farm in Water Mill, surged late to nose Social Inclusion for second.
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"He ran a phenomenal race," said winning owner Donald Little Jr., a resident of Ipswich, Mass. "We were hoping there'd be speed to run at, and we got that."
A day after the Red Sox received their World Series rings at Fenway Park, the colt with Massachusetts connections dominated a $1-million Triple Crown prep Saturday in Queens. Wicked Strong may belong to Beantown, but he loves New York.
"He really responded when I asked him," Maragh said, "and he did everything perfectly."
That was the opposite of how he ran over the winter in Florida, where Wicked Strong was wicked lousy in two losses by a total of 21 1/2 lengths. Because he ran well at The Big A last fall, finishing a close third in the 1 1/8-mile Remsen, trainer Jimmy Jerkens thought he might rebound in the Wood.
"He just didn't run at all at Gulfstream. The track was so speed-favoring," Jerkens said. "But you've got to keep plugging. Believe in your horse, believe in yourself, and something good will happen."
Social Inclusion was tested for class after going wire to wire twice at Gulfstream by a combined 17 1/2 lengths. He was keyed up and bucking heading to the post, and broke from the outside in a field of 10. For the first time, he had to duel up front, going head to head with 17-1 shot Schivarelli through a half-mile in 47.47 seconds. Yet when the 8-5 favorite shot clear by 1 1/2 lengths after 6 furlongs in 1:11.16, jockey Luis Contreras seemed to have plenty left. He didn't.
"I had so much horse before the quarter pole," Contreras said. "I tried to open up, and he just kind of ran flat."
As Social Inclusion's stride shortened, Wicked Strong accelerated. "He fell into a nice groove early, and he finished up really strong," Maragh said. "To me, he showed he's the Derby favorite right now."
Samraat made trainer Rick Violette proud despite his first loss in six starts. "He came back three times," he said. "He kept finding more in the stretch, and he got a huge education. As long as he comes out of it all right, we'll head to Kentucky."
Wicked Strong paid $20.40 for only his second win in six career starts after running 9 furlongs in 1:49.31. The son of Hard Spun earned $600,000, and Little said 1 percent will go to families of victims of last year's Boston Marathon bombings. Little said he wanted to call him Boston Strong, but the name had been taken. His wife suggested Wicked Strong.
The soft-spoken Jerkens, 55, is confident the colt who would be his first Derby runner will handle 1 1/4 miles. Five years ago, foot problems kept his talented Quality Road out of the race. "I'd love to get another crack at it, that's for sure," he said. "Looks like a horse where distance shouldn't bother him."