03/05/2015 1:00PM

Wicked Strong finds tough spot for comeback in Gulfstream Handicap

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Barbara D. Livingston
Wicked Strong, shown training Feb. 28 at Palm Meadows, will make his return to racing Saturday in the Gulfstream Park Handicap.

HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – Getting Wicked Strong back to the races here this winter has been a major priority for trainer Jimmy Jerkens since he shipped his star to south Florida last fall, but Wicked Strong’s much-anticipated 2015 debut in Saturday’s $300,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap has taken a backseat since Jerkens’s father, Hall of Fame horseman Allen Jerkens, was hospitalized and put into an induced coma last weekend.

“Naturally, worrying about my father being so ill has taken away some of my focus from this race,” Jerkens said. “But my dad would also be the first to say to always be with your horses. All of us at the barn have been trying to keep our focus as best we can this week, with the biggest distraction being the time it takes to go back and forth from Palm Meadows to visit my father in the hospital each day.”

Wicked Strong is part of a small but select field of six older handicap horses slated to contest the one-mile Gulfstream Park Handicap. He’ll face a group that includes Private Zone, the 122-pound highweight and three-time Grade 1 winner, Honor Code, Valid, East Hall, and Loverbil.

:: GULFSTREAM PARK: Get PPs, watch Saturday’s card live

Wicked Strong has not started since clipping heels and losing jockey Rajiv Maragh during the Sept. 27 running of the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup. That ill-fated outing concluded what had otherwise been a stellar 3-year-old campaign for Wicked Strong, who won the Grade 1 Wood Memorial and Grade 2 Jim Dandy, was beaten a nose by stablemate V. E. Day in the Grade 1 Travers, and finished fourth in both the Kentucky Derby and Belmont.

“It’s really a tough spot,” Jerkens said. “Private Zone may be the best miler in the country, and my horse hasn’t raced around one turn since he was a 2-year-old. I’d like to think of this race as a prep. That way I won’t be overly disappointed. But it’s a good place to get him started, and if he runs real big, it gives us extra options this year like the Met Mile.”

Private Zone will be making his first start since cruising to an easy five-length victory in the Grade 1 Cigar Mile and first start since being transferred to trainer Jorge Navarro’s barn earlier this winter. Private Zone had a short but stellar 2014 campaign that included a successful defense of his title in the Grade 1 Vosburgh and a third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.

“I’ve never seen anything like this horse,” Navarro said. “He couldn’t be doing any better. He’s ready. Although you always worry about coming back off a layoff like this, we’re sitting in the same spot as Wicked Strong and Honor Code, but coming off a deep track like Calder. I think it’s to our advantage.”

Navarro also will send out Loverbil, who brings a three-race win streak into the race, all in starter-allowance-type races.

“We’ll take him back, make one run, and try to find out if he can get a mile,” Navarro said.

Honor Code has been idle since rallying from far back against the grain of the track bias to post an eye-catching one-length allowance win Nov. 22 at Aqueduct. The outing was only his second at 3 and first since being sidelined due to a suspensory injury suffered while training up to the 2014 Wood Memorial.

“I wanted to give him more time, but he told us he wanted to run, so we sort of hammered down on him to have him ready for this race,” trainer Shug McGaughey said. “This isn’t a prep for anything. He’s in there to win the race.”

:: DRF Live: Watch live handicapping analysis of Saturday’s biggest races, starting at 12:30 Eastern

Key contenders

Private Zone (Last 3 Beyers :110-100-106)

Navarro said he does not plan to give regular rider Martin Pedroza any instructions in the paddock.

“I’m not going to change anything or tell the rider anything,” Navarro said. “He knows this horse better than me.”

Wicked Strong (Last 3 Beyers: N/A-102-100)

Jerkens said, “It’s hard to tell how he’ll perform off the layoff since he’s never really run off the bench before, other than in his career debut at 2.”

Honor Code (Last 3 Beyers: 106-92-88)

Finished second, beaten a neck, and was likely best making his only other start at a mile in the 2013 Champagne.

He defeated Wicked Strong by a half-length in their only previous meeting when capturing the Grade 2 Remsen at 2.

Valid (Last 3 Beyers: 107-104-111)

* Amazingly consistent gelding has posted triple-digit Beyers in eight of his last nine starts, including a 107 when surviving a race-long pace duel with Grande Shores to capture the Grade 3 Fred Hooper at a mile Feb. 7.

riconap More than 1 year ago
Tough task for WS since almost every winner on the boring Gulfstream main track for the last few days were either in the lead or laying second for the last 3/8ths. Thank goodness for turf racing where the winner and second place finishers are not already known at the top of the stretch, as is the case on the main track.
Chuck Seddio More than 1 year ago
this is just a tune-up for later i did not like the change in tactics for wicked strong that started in the belmont,he was too close and in his subsequent races continued that way,i preferred him coming from the back like he did in the remsen , if you remember the remsen went in 1;17 for 6f,honor code won because of javier"s brilliant ride but wicked was most impressive especially after the follow up in the wood. honor code is a new horse,put on weight and is ready right now to take on cc and sb. this can be a great year for older horses as last years 3yr old crop is the best to come along in many years.looking forward to the g1's coming up
tommy More than 1 year ago
Mike!!!! Can't wait when you give the derby news and workout clocker report!!
Pauly Patane More than 1 year ago
All joking aside, call the racing office and speak to a manager. They have to answer you or give you an explanation.
Pauly Patane More than 1 year ago
You bet Delta Downs. Two rats behind a dumpster having an argument.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hi Mike, I hope Mr. Navarro knows how to take care of a top notch horse. These type usually do not need the usual undetectable illegal drugs he normal injects in his horses. Its really sad that the racing commissions let guys like this and the Rick Dutrow want to be Rudy Rodriguez, do whatever they want without any repercussions.
Philip Conforti More than 1 year ago
Mayb we should let u b judge and jury on all things racing since u can predict things with no proof ! Here's an idea if u think it's fixed stop betting !
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Hello Phil, I am taking you up on your suggestion. No betting into any races when these guys are involved. AS you may know, the above mentioned names have been suspended on a few occasions for various drug infraction. AS the saying goes "where there is smoke, there is usually fire"
Ray Sousa More than 1 year ago
could drf comment on what happened at DELTA DOWNS last night Wednesday ..in the 4th race i hit the superfecta the exacta and trifecta. After the numbers where posted DELTA DOWNS announced a tote malfunction (something i have seen before many times).the difference here was that after 20 minutes or so they announced that they were refunding and declared the race a non race..so basically they screwed up and the bettors get screwed again.nothing unusual happened during the running and ive seen tote issues get resolved and the winners paid.so im wondering what happened here.ps they ran the next race and the tote was fine
hialeah More than 1 year ago
They said on TVG that the windows remained open while the race was being run. Not a first time for that, but maybe, the first time I saw a race like that declared a Non-Race. Especially with a super-logical winner. My fix is to never bet Delta Downs!