06/04/2014 3:01PM

Hovdey: Giant killers lurking on Belmont Stakes card

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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.

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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.

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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.