Five years ago, Jimmy Jerkens thought he was on his way to his first Kentucky Derby with the best horse. Quality Road was coming off runaways in the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby and would have been the favorite in Louisville. Unfortunately, they never even made it to Churchill Downs. Five days before the Derby, a hoof injury forced a "devastated" Jerkens to cancel a workout at Belmont Park and scratch Quality Road.
"His talent was far beyond any horse I've ever had," the 55-year-old trainer said last week. "To have a horse like that and not be able to get him to the Derby was just incredibly frustrating."
Someone suggested maybe the racing gods owe him a Derby. Jerkens laughed and said, "Yes, I think so."
He'll try to get it Saturday with Wicked Strong, who made a surprising breakthrough April 5 in the 11/8-mile Wood Memorial. The 9-1 shot rallied from sixth with Rajiv Maragh and surged down the stretch to score by 3½ lengths. Jerkens hopes the Derby's expected fast pace will set him up for another big late run. However, growing up in a racing family -- his father is 85-year-old Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens -- and his disappointment with Quality Road make him wary.
"Well, it looks good on paper for us, but so many things have to go right regardless," he said. "We have to be in a good spot where he's comfortable and saving a little ground. Then he has to make a little move and not get stopped. You pretty much just have to make sure your horse is doing as well as you can possibly get him and just hope the rest takes care of itself."
Unlike Quality Road, Wicked Strong flopped at speed-favoring Gulfstream Park, going 0-for-2 by a combined 21½ lengths. That's why Jerkens skipped the Florida Derby and shipped to New York for the Wood at Aqueduct, where Wicked Strong ran well last fall.
"He took a step backward in Florida, which wasn't what we expected," Jerkens said. "There were some valid reasons. In the first race he acted up badly in the gate and ended up getting a tail injury, a big, long gash that took a while to heal. The next time he was wide all the way."
The Long Island native (born in Bay Shore, resides in Merrick) is encouraged by Wicked Strong's development on the track. His maturity level remains a concern, and keeping it together amid the wall of noise on mobbed Derby Day is the mother of all stress tests. "He has a tendency to get antsy in the starting gate, and that's a big question mark with him," Jerkens said. "If he's in the gate too long, that might rattle him a little bit."
Jerkens learned well during 20 years as his father's assistant. Since going out on his own in 1997, he's won a Travers and two Breeders' Cup events. A Derby trophy would be a family first. Allen is 0-for-3 in the big race (11th, sixth and 12th in 1976, '78 and '92, respectively), and Jimmy's older brother, Steve, finished seventh in 1983.
Wicked Strong's owner, Massachusetts resident Donald Little Jr., wanted the name Boston Strong to memorialize the 2013 Marathon bombings, but it was taken. Little has donated 1 percent of the colt's earnings to the victims and will give 5 percent during the Triple Crown. Red Sox Nation will be rooting wicked hard for a World Series-Derby parlay.
"Who knows, it might be another force we need to help us along," Jerkens said. "I just hope it works out for everybody."