03/05/2015 1:00PM

Wicked Strong finds tough spot for comeback in Gulfstream Handicap

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.

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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.”

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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.