NEW YORK — Serious handicappers will pore over the pedigrees of the Belmont Stakes contenders, looking for horses whose lineage suggests the stamina and the class needed to beat California Chrome and deny racing its 12th Triple Crown winner on Saturday.
The process could be simplified by checking the bloodlines of the trainers. No one has been better groomed to knock off a champion than Jimmy Jerkens, who sends out Wicked Strong.
The 55-year-old Jimmy Jerkens is the son of Hall of Famer Allen Jerkens, nicknamed the “Giant Killer” for his training upsets.
The elder Jerkens beat the mighty Secretariat twice in 1973, in the Whitney Handicap with Onion and in the Woodward Handicap with Prove Out. He also pinned loses on champions Buckpasser, Kelso and Skip Away.
Now the son gets a chance to carry on the family tradition with Wicked Strong, 6-1 on the morning line.
It won’t be easy. California Chrome, the 3-5 favorite, enters the 1½-mile Belmont on a six-race winning streak. The flashy chestnut colt with four white feet and a prominent blaze became famous with his victories in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
All he needs is the Belmont to complete the Triple Crown and secure his place in history. Weather permitting, a crowd of around 100,000 is expected to cheer him on.
“It will take a combination of things to beat him, that’s for sure,” Jimmy Jerkens said. “Everybody else will have to run the race of their life and California Chrome will have to throw in a clunker.”
Following in his father’s low-key tradition, Jerkens has prepped Wicked Strong with a minimum of fanfare. His horses exercise at Belmont’s training track, apart from the main strip where most of the Belmont runners have been working and galloping for the race.
Although removed from center stage, Wicked Strong caught the clocker’s attention last weekend with a crisp five-furlong workout in 59.10 seconds.
Wicked Strong spied Palace Malice up ahead and took off after him. Jerkens gave exercise rider Kelvin Pahal a hand signal to slow down, preventing an even quicker drill.
“Most of the time you like them to run horses down but I think it might have been too much, trying to catch Palace Malice,” Jerkens said.
You can’t blame the colt for trying to keep pace with last year’s Belmont Stakes winner.
Wicked Strong, named as a tribute to the Boston Marathon bombing victims, showed promise late last year, missing by only a half-length in the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct.
He ran poorly in two races over the winter in Florida, a mystery Jerkens still can’t unravel.
Wicked Strong came north to deliver his defining moment in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, rallying from well off the pace for a 3½-length victory.
The Kentucky Derby was a nightmare. While California Chrome had an ideal trip, Wicked Strong stumbled at the start. He quickly regrouped, only to wind up in a traffic jam. He finally shook loose to finish fourth, a respectable effort considering the difficulties.
Jerkens opted to skip the Preakness and regroup for the Belmont at the colt’s home track.
“I guess we always had it in the back of our minds that the Belmont would be one where he would have the best shot of all the Triple Crown races,” Jerkens said.
For the first time in six decades, Allen Jerkens, 85, is not stabled at Belmont. “The Chief” as he is affectionately known on the backstretch opted to remain in Florida year-round with his horses. Jimmy worked as his father’s assistant for 20 years before heading out on his own in 1997.
The younger Jerkens learned many valuable lessons in that apprenticeship, including the wisdom that produced so many of his father’s memorable upsets.
“You can’t concede races to horses,” Jerkens said. “You have to take a shot.”
A Belmont victory would be the first in the Triple Crown for either Jerkens.