04/30/2014 5:31PM

Kentucky Derby rookies with a history

Barbara D. Livingston
Wicked Strong, training at Churchill Downs, is owned by Centennial Farms and trained by Jimmy Jerkens. Centennial and the Jerkens family go back three decades.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – It is a little surprising but perhaps appropriate that Centennial Farms and trainer Jimmy Jerkens will be making their Kentucky Derby debuts together when they send out Wood Memorial winner Wicked Strong in Saturday’s 140th Run for the Roses.

The relationship between Centennial – a Massachusetts-based racing partnership founded by Don Little Sr. in 1982 and now run by his son Don Little Jr. – and the Jerkens family goes back three decades. It went dormant for a period, but has been revived over the last decade.

“We couldn’t be more pleased going there with Jimmy,” said Don Little Jr., 54, who took over as president of Centennial following the death of his father in 2012.

When Little’s father established Centennial, he tabbed Allen Jerkens, already a member of the Hall of Fame, to be the outfit’s trainer. Jimmy Jerkens was then his father’s assistant.

The Littles and Jerkenses knew each other from the polo circuit, as both the father and son in each family played the sport.

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In the early years, Allen Jerkens trained stakes-winning fillies Aptostar, Topicount, and Silent Account, among others, for Centennial.

But as Centennial grew its partnership, a key component to attracting investors became educating racing novices, which included trips to the barn to see the horses and talk to the trainer. Allen Jerkens preferred to educate his horses.

“Allen, he’s a very private person, and as we grew and took people to the barns Allen focused on his horses,” Little said. “He didn’t have time to handle the investors.”

In the summer of 1990, after Rubiano ran poorly in an allowance race on the turf, Centennial took its horses away from Allen Jerkens and moved them to Scotty Schulhofer.

“I felt very bad about it at the time,” Allen Jerkens recalled. “Then I got going again.”

“I know my dad was really hurt by that,” Jimmy Jerkens said.

Rubiano was the champion sprinter of 1992. Centennial went on to have success with horses like Colonial Affair, the 1993 Belmont winner, and Lil’s Lad, the 1998 Fountain of Youth winner.

Meanwhile, Jimmy Jerkens left his father’s employ to go out on his own in 1997. Jimmy Jerkens trained a bevy of graded stakes winners led by Artie Schiller, who won the 2005 Breeders’ Cup Mile, and Smokey Glacken, a five-time graded-stakes-winning filly.

In 2005, the veterinarian Stephen Carr, who is the manager of horse operations for Centennial, said he approached Jerkens and asked him to train some horses for Centennial “as a favor to me.” Carr had done vet work for Jerkens for many years.

“There was a lot of water under the bridge, different people involved,” Jimmy Jerkens, 55, said when asked about reuniting with Centennial.

Among the first horses Centennial and Jerkens campaigned together was Corinthian, who was disqualified from first in the 2006 Fountain of Youth, and eventually removed from the Triple Crown trail with a hind leg injury that March. At 4, Corinthian came back to win three stakes, including the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap and the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.

Jerkens was also working for other owners, including Edward Evans, for whom he trained Grade 1 winners Quality Road and Christmas Kid, and Susan and John Moore, for whom he trained the Grade 1 winner Zaftig and Smokey Glacken.

In 2009, Quality Road was the closest Jerkens came to getting to the Kentucky Derby. But following his victory in the 2009 Florida Derby, Quality Road was plagued by quarter cracks that prevented him from making the Derby.

“His talent was far beyond anything of any horse I ever had by a longshot,” Jerkens said. “He could do things that’d just make the hair on the back of your neck stand up as easy as he could do them. . . . He had so much talent and to know that you had a horse that was much better talent-wise and not be able to get him over there was incredibly frustrating.”

Life got more frustrating for Jerkens as he lost Evans and the Moores as clients. His numbers dwindled. In 2011 and 2012, Jerkens won just 17 races each year. Last year, Jerkens saddled only 112 starters, the fewest in any full year in which he’s trained.

“It was tough losing nice horses like that,” said Jerkens, who noted that Centennial stood by him during that time.

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Jerkens has become the main trainer for Centennial, getting all the horses that race in New York.

“He’s got a small operation,” Little said. “You couldn’t ask for a better hands-on individual. He’s done a phenomenal job for us. He’s got a phenomenal eye in terms of talent, how horses progress and digress one way or the other. He can see the minute changes in horses that, even though I’ve been around horses all my life, I can’t see.”

Everybody in Centennial saw the talent from the start in Wicked Strong, a son of 2007 Derby runner-up Hard Spun. Centennial purchased him for $375,000 at the Keeneland September yearling auction. He won his second start by two lengths at Belmont on Oct. 26 and finished third, beaten just a half-length by the highly regarded Honor Code, in the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct.

In Florida this winter, Wicked Strong misbehaved at the gate prior to the Jan. 25 Holy Bull Stakes and stopped abruptly during the race, finishing ninth. On Feb. 22, Wicked Strong came back in a first-level allowance race, finishing fourth, a result Jerkens maintains was better than it looked because the race was run over a speed-favoring track and Wicked Strong was last early. Constitution, the winner of that allowance race, came back to win the Grade 1 Florida Derby.

“Unlike what everybody else thinks – that he didn’t like Florida – he loved Florida,” said Carr, the Centennial manager for horse operations. “He thrived down there and trained great, and we thought ,‘Oh boy, here we go.’ But he had a little gate issue and it took him another race to get all that sorted out. We came into the Wood Memorial very confident. I was very confident he was going to run well. I didn’t know he’d win by three lengths.”

Recently, the closest Centennial has come to having a starter in the Derby was in 2007, when Chelokee failed to make the cut due to a lack of graded stakes earnings.

In Wicked Strong, a horse named in honor of the victims of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings, Centennial is here and with a real chance.

“In terms of running style, his pedigree to get a mile and a quarter, he’s a true Derby-type of horse, and going in we’re thinking he has a shot, and he’s got a shot,” Little said.

For both Centennial and Jerkens, it’s a shot three decades in the making.