06/04/2014 3:01PM

Hovdey: Giant killers lurking on Belmont Stakes card

Barbara D. Livingston
If Wicked Strong were to post an upset in the Belmont Stakes, it would be the latest in a long line of shockers orchestrated by a member of the Jerkens family.

Art and Alan Sherman have their father-and-son routine pretty much nailed down cold when it comes to training a horse for the Triple Crown. They complete each other’s sentences and read the other guy’s mind so effectively that Art can drink a glass of water while Alan talks, and nobody sees anybody move their lips.

Of course, it helps that the Shermans have a horse like California Chrome in which to invest the sum of their shared experience. Everything they do with the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner seems to work, no matter how far removed from accepted practice. Reading between the many lines of dialogue they have delivered to the media over the past two months – since California Chrome went viral after the Santa Anita Derby – it sounds like everything is on go for the Chrome camp as his date with Triple Crown destiny approaches Saturday in the Belmont Stakes.

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “Long Rein: Tales from the World of Horse Racing,” a collection of columns and features by Jay Hovdey

At this point, California Chrome looks like a slam dunk to take the grand prize, just like Kelso was in the 1963 Widener Handicap, or Buckpasser in the 1967 Brooklyn Handicap, or Secretariat in the 1973 Whitney Handicap, or Skip Away in the 1998 Jockey Club Gold Cup. The fact that Kelso, Buckpasser, Secretariat, and Skip Away all were beaten in those races should not throw a cold towel on anyone’s dreams of a California Chrome victory. Allen Jerkens, the man who orchestrated those seismic upsets, is a long way from Belmont Park right now and doesn’t have a thing running in the Belmont Stakes.

But his son does.

::DRF Live: Get real-time reports from Belmont Park each morning

Jimmy Jerkens will saddle Centennial Farms’ Wicked Strong in the Belmont, hoping that the son of Hard Spun can shake off his dodgy trip in the Kentucky Derby and run back to his impressive score in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct two months ago.

“One thing I know is you don’t win the Belmont with a plodder, and this colt is no plodder,” Jerkens said.

Indeed, Wicked Strong has a kick that jockey Rajiv Maragh can use whenever and wherever he wants during the Belmont’s 1 1/2 miles. The colt has been telling Jerkens he wants to get back in the game with solid works over the Belmont Park training track, just across the road from his Barn 57.

“He was getting long works even before the other races this year,” Jerkens noted. “Running a mile and a half, though, you don’t want to wear them down with fast gallops.”

Then again, how would he know? Which is a line straight out of the Allen Jerkens quote book, from a trainer who managed to achieve demigod status without winning a Triple Crown event or a Breeders’ Cup race. Beating horses like Kelso, Secretariat, and Buckpasser will do that for you, but what does it say about the profession?

“My dad’s favorite actor is Robert Mitchum, who was asked in an interview how tough it was to be an actor,” Jimmy Jerkens said. “ ‘How hard can it be?’ Mitchum said. ‘They gave Rin Tin Tin an Oscar.’ ”

Allen Jerkens has never warmed up to his media nickname of “Giant Killer.” The racing world knows him fondly as “Chief,” and Chief will be home in Florida on Saturday but at Belmont in something considerably more than spirit. He has sent two horses for major races on the undercard, with House Rules trying to win the $750,000 Acorn Stakes and Classic Point facing the monsters Beholder, Close Hatches, and Princess of Sylmar in the $1 million Ogden Phipps.

Naturally, you would have expected House Rules and Classic Point to bed down with Jimmy Jerkens for their New York road trip. But no.

“They’re over on the other side, in Barn 5,” Jimmy said before lapsing into a Jerkens wisecrack. “He was afraid I might submarine him.”

Fat chance. Both fillies have been developed by Allen Jerkens, and after their races Saturday, they will return to Gulfstream Park, where the elder Jerkens has decided to make his year-round home after six decades in New York.

His decision left a Hall of Fame-sized hole in the Belmont backstretch that will take some getting used to. Fernando Abreu, Allen’s assistant trainer, felt a little like a fish out of water settling into a nearly empty Barn 5 this week, as if he was parked at the curb outside his childhood home. Then, when two different official vets came around to take out-of-competition blood samples from House Rules and Classic Point, he politely corrected some of the paperwork to read the right Jerkens.

Abreu was asked if he could remember the last time Allen Jerkens had a drug ruling.

“I’ve worked for Chief 19 years,” Abreu said. “Two years ago, I took a horse for him to Kentucky. His license had expired, so they had to ask if he’d had any rulings against him. I couldn’t remember any, so they looked it up and found that he had one ... for not giving a horse enough Lasix.”

Of course, you don’t beat horses like California Chrome and Beholder with clean living and mystique. Jimmy Jerkens knows this, from both family history and personal experience, and is comfortable with a fatalistic approach to winning and losing that comes straight from dear old dad. And yet, as he looked at Wicked Strong, he couldn’t help but let a little bit of sunshine leak through.

“I feel good about my chances,” he said, then quickly added, “for me,” which on the Jerkens scale is saying a lot.

Marc Strews More than 1 year ago
Matterhorn down the rail!Belmont a track that has stooped many good horses.U cannot already hand over the tc if the race has not run yet!
Bob Manzi More than 1 year ago
Hard to fanthom why no one is giving Commanding Curve his due. Even after a moderate pace in the Derby he went by the entire field sans Chrome like they were standing still. Going eight wide on the final turn he probably ran 50 yards more then Chrome and still lost by less then two lengths, and Chrome was not geared down at the end as race comment says finished driving. His byers have been steadly rising and then the best is yet to come.
Andrew Greenberg More than 1 year ago
Food for thought Bob. Jockey must be disciplined and strong as horse. Lots of time to make adjustments in race. And you've got plenty of horse to do it..... Good selection you have made
matt More than 1 year ago
The reason commanding curve isn't getting his use is because he has only won a maiden race. Cc has won 3 grade 1 and a grade 2. Although I understand why you think commanding curve might be sitting on a big race usually maiden winners don't get a lot of respect next to multiple grade one winners.
robert More than 1 year ago
Commanding Curve is a deep closer which is not the style of running that wins the Belmont!
Gaye Goodwin More than 1 year ago
Chrome was not geared down at the end of the Derby? You and Andrew B. make me laugh!
Merrill More than 1 year ago
The most impressive move that California Chrome has made was when he went into another gear, leaving a tired Social Inclusion in his wake. With authority, and without kicking in another gear, held off the belated challenge...............OH, and he was in the process of being eased prior to the finish. Watched it over and over again. This horse is a freak...............and after he dominates this on Saturday, he will be compared to Secretariat. I never thought I would see another Secretariat, but you wait and see. By years end, this horse will be a Super Star......
Andrew Greenberg More than 1 year ago
If CC wins he will be put out to stud. His end of year will be grazing in California waiting for the big breeding checks to come in.....
Maynard More than 1 year ago
Grazing in California? Don't you mean munching on imported hay?
robert More than 1 year ago
His connections already said that they want him to continue racing after the Belmont.
Ron Draheim More than 1 year ago
Going a tad high with the Secretariat are we? If Chrome wins he deserves all his kudos. But lets remember he did it in a weak year. You mentioned Social Inclusion (50-50 with Honor Code) and Cairo Prince is in the mix. Constitution was much better than those 3, he proved it head to head. Look back at the top 5-7 3yr olds in late Feb and how many didn't make the Triple Crown trip due to injury. If CC can run the Belmont in all sub 12 second F, as did Secretariat did then you have a pt. If not well toss
Andrew Greenberg More than 1 year ago
I think We need to look a bit more into Hard Spun's distance profile. Wicked Strong ran great in the Wood at Aqueduct. I say give him another chance. It will be interesting to see which team the publisher of DRF will pick on this historic Belmont day. Mr. Crist was one of a handful that selected the Travers winner last summer in Spa. Don't get me wrong Chrome is so amazing and talented. We will see if he can get the crown. Sure hope he does. Would be great for a sport that I love.
Don Soucy More than 1 year ago
Expand on Hard Spun's distance profile. I like Wicked Strong a lot to be in the money, but not sure about winning. Hard Spun and Charismatic both came up short at 1 1/2. Would be interested to get your take.
Maynard More than 1 year ago
Charismatic had a broken leg bone. Kind of hard not to "come up short" when that is the case.
Cover2 More than 1 year ago
W S , gotta beat more than rin tin tin here ! Be just like first two, none running at CC at the eighth pole, only ques who will complete exotics , and HoY after they polish off the pac & BC classics.>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>>.
David Walsh More than 1 year ago
I'm laughing... alot of these comments are laughable.. lets go back to theSA derby when chrome won by 7.. then the derby when he did everything espinoza asked of him.. preakness... where social inclusion looked him in the eye and chrome put him away.. bob baffert said after the preakness I'm not going after him in the belmont when he is right no 3yr old will beat him and he looks more than alright.. tonalist has faced no one.. wicked the same it will be chrome and ride on curlin once again.. belmont sandy track is similair to santa anita new surface and chrome seems to love the surface
Randy Perez More than 1 year ago
David, to say Santa Anita ' s surface is comparable to Big Sandy is a joke. It's obvious you have never been to Belmont Park. Sure CC has been the best 3 year old for the last 2 plus months but the great equalizer is the 1 1/2. We will see come Saturday. Good luck
matt More than 1 year ago
randy everything there is a breeders cup at Santa Anita Jerry bailey and Simon bray comment on how the new York horses have an advantage because the surface is very similar.. I think they would no better than you. Many times the new York horses are better than what we have out here so the comparison usually go one way.. But I think in this case cc does have an advantage
jon g More than 1 year ago
Best card of the year,including Breeders Cup. I'll handle double here,rather than over that concrete highway and joke of a turf course at SA
Cover2 More than 1 year ago
Look where the BC was run last two years ! What do call this get up the dollar highway ? condition race run for $100K ? Where were all the blue bloods last 35 years ? Take a nothing cal bred to win tc.........CC - samara - r o curl, all sup
jon g More than 1 year ago
CC will have Samraat and Tonalist to duel with and try to hold off WS and ROC down the stretch. If he wins,he'll deserve it. At 1/2 he's a side bet for me
S Chronister More than 1 year ago
What's this "duel" between Samraat and CC? Samraat couldn't match more than 2 strides with CC in the Derby. Look, I like Samraat a lot, he's a tough, gritty horse with a lot of game...but he doesn't have great speed and he's useless beyond 1-1/8 miles. Tonalist? The sorefooted G2 horse breaking from the outside post? Maybe if he were closer to the rail, maybe on his best day...but not this Saturday. Shame, really, but pass. The only challengers here will be the deep closers. IF they can catch up.
liljock More than 1 year ago
Wicked Strong has a chance. He told me so himself on his Twitter account. Best twitterer in the field, all I know.
Alan Shevelove More than 1 year ago
3 of the 11 have only maiden wins. 5 others have 2 lifetime wins. Chromes value can only go down from now on and most likely will be retired after the race. He should never be compared to Slew or Affirmed . Chrome is running against plodders.
sjm80s . More than 1 year ago
Haven't you said this before? DipShid, nobody grades horses ran against. HIS pedigree is HIS pedigree. He could have raced chickens and oxen and it won't be on his resume. Only that first column after lifetime starts and all the G's next to them.